The Americans came loaded for bear at the 2011 World Juniors. One game in — a 3-2 overtime triumph over Finland — they may have difficulty emerging out of the semifinals because of two costly injuries.
Conventional wisdom was that the Americans not only would make a formidable defense of their 2010 WJC title — won in blissfully shocking fashion thanks to Captain America — but that this year’s entry could actually be stronger. They may just be. At least one member of Sweden’s WJC entry believes the Americans, and not the Canadians, are the tourney’s toughest team. But that was before the Americans lost front-line forwards Jeremy Morin and Brock Nelson last night. Morin’s shoulder injury is believed to have cost him the tournament.
The Caps were on Comcast’s second channel last night, which is broadcast in Morse code, so it was very easy for me to get sucked in to the high definition coverage of U.S.-Finland over on the NHL Network. Here’s what I saw from the Americans: lots of speed, conspicuous cohesion by a band of brothers assembled together just since December 17, excellent defensive zone coverage, and a power play polished and poised so as to make Caps’ fans envious.
Is isn’t just that the United States National Development Team Program is working like a well-oiled machine, luring some of our nation’s finest athletes to Ann Arbor and broadening the geographical base from which our national teams’ skaters originate. There is elite ability behind the bench as well: Keith Allain is the bench boss for this American WJ club, and in his day job he guides the no. 1-ranked team in all of college hockey — Yale. When you’re no. 1 in any major sport at an Ivy League institution, that’s seriously getting it done. Allain is assisted by Phil Housley — merely one of the most accomplished American hockey players ever.
Last night’s tourney opener for both the Americans and Fins went to overtime, but it took remarkable heroics by Finnish netminder Joni Ortio to get the Fins there. Jeremy Morin scored what appeared to be a power play goal that would have given the Americans a 3-1 lead well into the final frame, but Nick Bjugstad was ruled to have had a toe touching the outermost crease coloring in front of Ortio. Totally ticky-tack call. The Fins counter-punched in deliberate fashion as all their national teams do, and scored the equalizer with just over 6 minutes to play. In OT, Bjugstad pounced on a Finnish turnover in the nuetral zone and became the game’s hero, besting Ortio just 1:52 into extra time.
This will be yet another very fun American national team to watch. The Morin injury is huge, but Kyle Palmieri can still dangle with the best of this tourney’s forwards. And the American roster is deep: 9 first-rounders, six more from round 2. The Americans will have to avoid any additional injuries, and they will need netminder Jack Campbell to live up to his 11th overall draft status to get the U.S. a medal in hockey’s greatest tournament.