Coach Ron Wilson of Team USA claimed not to know any of Russia’s players ahead of Monday’s semifinal clash at the World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
Safe to say he knows them now.
The “anonymous” Russians knocked off Wilson’s Americans, 2–1, and will move on to face host Finland in the gold medal game on Tuesday.
Team USA, which will play Sweden for the bronze on Tuesday (9:00 a.m. ET, NHL Network), has now been eliminated by the Russians three years in row. The Americans have yet to win a medal round game against their rivals since the IIHF began using the playoff system in 1996.
It was a disappointing finish for a squad that outscored its opposition 25-5 through its first five games and had its sights set on the USA’s first gold at the event since 2013.
A few quick thoughts on the game:
• Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, defenseman Zach Werenski and forward Auston Matthews were named Team USA’s top three players of the tournament. If all three showed up the way Nedeljkovic did on Monday, it would have been the Americans and not the Russians going on to the final.
The 19-year-old goaltender will take some heat for cheating just far enough off his post to allow Igor Korshkov’s game-winner at 17:56 of the second period, but that was the only mark on an otherwise excellent 31-save performance. The Carolina Hurricanes prospect was at his best when the Americans took simultaneous penalties late in the first, allowing Russia a full two-minute five-on-three advantage. Nedeljkovic made several excellent stops, including a brilliant paddle save on Alexander Polunin from the side of the net to preserve a 1–0 USA lead.
• Werenski was a beast in the tournament, but he seemed to wear down as this game moved on, especially when Wilson went with four defensemen in the third. His passes weren’t as crisp, which hurt Team USA’s chances of breaking through the Russian blockade of the neutral zone, and he made several positioning blunders. Korshkov’s goal was really on him, not Nedeljkovic—Werenski allowed the Russian to beat him wide and then to the net on the winner.
There are whispers that Werenski is considering leaving the University of Michigan and turning pro once the tournament is over. Hard to say for certain that the 18-year-old could lend immediate help to the Blue Jackets, who drafted him eighth in 2015, but given the sorry state of the Columbus blue line, he’d likely get a look before long.
• Matthews wasn’t mistake prone as much as he was ineffective in this one. Although he saw massive ice time (by the eye test, at least—there are no official TOI stats for the event), the presumptive top selection in the 2016 NHL draft never asserted himself in this game as he had previously in the tournament. He did set up linemate Matthew Tkachuk for a couple of in-tight chances, but rarely made his way into the slot himself, settling more often for less difficult ice. He was Team USA’s go-to guy throughout the tournament, but he couldn’t get it done in this one.
Matthews, who scored three goals in the 7–0 quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic, still leads the tournament with seven overall. He’ll look to tie, or break, Jeremy Roenick’s American record of eight, set back in 1989, against Sweden on Tuesday.
• When Team USA looks back on this one, it will look at its two failed power play chances early in the third as the turning point. Down 2–1, the Americans started the period with 1:47 remaining on an opportunity created when Kirill Karpizov sent the puck over the glass, and then were gifted with a too-many-men-on-the-ice chance just two minutes later. Those are the kind of penalties that can deflate a defending team, but Team USA failed to generate much with either advantage. Success at five-on-five got the Americans through the early stages, but their power play—which ranked sixth in the 10-team tournament at 20.1%—failed them when needed most.
• There were questions earlier in the tournament when Russian coach Valeri Bragin buried netminder Ilya Samsonov on the bench for four of his team’s first five games, but even after Alexander Georgiev’s pedestrian effort in a 4–3 quarterfinal win over Denmark, the 2015 Washington Capitals first-rounder was a surprise starter for the must-win game. Samsonov delivered, making 26 stops to send the Russians on to the gold medal game. He had no chance on the one goal he allowed—a backdoor tap-in by Christian Dvorak—and he made several big stops, especially late in the game when the desperate Americans hemmed the puck in the Russian zone for the final five minutes of play. His right pad stop on Matthew Tkachuk during that frantic finish was a game saver, and it highlighted his athleticism. There is some thought that he may never play for the Caps—at 26, Braden Holtby could be their starter for the next decade—but if Samsonov simply winds up as a trade chip, he should bring a decent return on the draft investment.
• Wilson has made no secret of his interest in finding another NHL job, and this event was a chance to get his name back into the conversation. Not sure he did himself any favors. His brash pre-game comments, including, “I couldn’t tell you any players on the Russian team,” are sure to blow back on him after this loss. While they don’t necessarily reflect a lack of preparation—the team has advance scouts whose job it is to know those players—it does speak to the arrogance that led to his dismissal from the Maple Leafs back in 2012. The bigger issue was his inability to react to Russia’s defense as the game moved on. Team USA’s speed was a difference maker early, but Russia adapted its coverage, clogging up the neutral zone to slow the Americans for the final 40 minutes. Even given the benefit of the second intermission, Wilson couldn’t make the necessary adjustments to break through. Safe to say he didn’t move himself to the top of anyone’s list after that performance.