Knight Riders: Team USA Wins Gold

The Americans defeated Canada in the final of the world juniors thanks to team defense and a shutout from goalie Spencer Knight.
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Spencer Knight

Spencer Knight

In the end, the only thing that could get past Spencer Knight was an errant stick and, a little bit later, a skidding Drew Helleson. On pucks, the Team USA goaltender was perfect in the gold-medal game, stopping all 34 shots he faced from a Canadian squad that had been a juggernaut - until the final.

It's never one player that wins a championship and Knight was well-supported. Tournament MVP Trevor Zegras was outstanding yet again, contributing points on both goals in the 2-0 victory, while as a team, the Americans did what no other squad at the world juniors could accomplish: they held Canada away from the middle of the ice, limiting the scoring chances from an incredibly dangerous opponent.

The defense corps, which had not been seen as a strong suit before the tournament began - particularly when Alex Vlasic was forced to miss out due to the pandemic - was excellent. That blueline unit stepped up as a whole, but it was hard not to see fantastic individual efforts by the likes of captain Cam York (PHI) and Helleson (COL).

But in the end, the player of the game for the Americans was rightly Knight. The Florida Panthers first-rounder has always been an elite netminding prospect and he proved why against Canada. Heck, other than an off game against Russia to kick off the tournament, Knight was practically unbeatable. His three shutouts this year set an American world junior record, while his doughnut in the final was the first medal-round shutout in American WJC history.

"Spencer, he's just elite," said coach Nate Leaman. "He had a rough first game and we had to get him back on track. Between him and 'Z' (Zegras), they were our best players tonight and we needed him tonight."

While Canada's Devon Levi stole many of the goaltending headlines during the tournament, Knight is the netminder of the future for the Panthers, assuming that Sergei Bobrovsky doesn't actually play out his entire contract in South Florida.

Knight, like the majority of Team USA, came from the National Team Development Program, where he was top-end even as a developing teen. He's still developing, to be fair, but as a freshman at Boston College last season, he proved that he was ready for the best that the Hockey East conference could throw at him, registering an impressive .931 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average. This season, in four games with the Eagles, he has somehow been even better with a .955 save percentage and 1.50 goals-against average. Leaman, who coaches conference rival Providence College, has seen the Knight show up close and personal.

"Unfortunately," Leaman said, "I've seen him take over a series in Hockey East."

In the gold-medal game, he showed why he's so stingy. Not only is Knight 6-foot-3 and athletic, but he plays square to the puck and doesn't panic. Canada had some A-1 scoring opportunities on the evening, from an early Bowen Byram rush to a third-period breakaway by Connor McMichael that could have completely changed the complexion of the game. But Knight made sure it didn't.

Canada did not give up in the final: while Team USA carried portions of the game, the Canadians were swarming in the third period and outshot the Americans 15-1. But Knight (and the team defending in front of him) simply would not give in. It was the type of effort that you need from a netminder when you're playing for gold and he certainly delivered.

"Knight shut the door," said Canada's Dylan Cozens. "We did what we could - we had chances."

Team USA has now won its fifth world junior gold and third in the past nine years. Canada and Finland have also won three in that span and with all of those countries welcoming more exciting players to their rosters in the coming years, the battle for gold will not get any easier. But when you have a goalie like Knight in your crease, you can at least count the odds to be in your favor.

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