It’s safe to say no one expected Thursday’s semifinal to play out like that. Team USA dominated Canada in every facet and advanced to the World Junior Championship gold medal game with a commanding 5-1 victory. It was the most lopsided win by the U.S. against Canada in WJC play since a 7-3 triumph in 1981.
Team captain Jake McCabe scored the game’s first two goals and assisted on the third. Johnny Gaudreau also tallied two goals and an assist, giving him seven goals and two assists in the last three games. Jimmy Vesey scored his first goal of the tournament and also had an assist, while J.T. Miller registered two assists. John Gibson stopped 33 of 34 shots to raise his save percentage for the tournament to an incredible .954 mark.
The Americans will play the winner of Thursday’s Sweden-Russia game at 8 a.m. ET on Saturday. Canada will play the loser in the bronze medal game at 4 a.m. ET.
What I saw
-The U.S. continued to get huge offensive contributions from its defensemen. With McCabe’s two goals, 10 of the Americans’ 31 goals in the tournament have now been scored by defensemen. Furthermore, the U.S. now has the top three scoring defensemen in the whole tournament — Jacob Trouba leads with eight points, while Seth Jones has seven and McCabe has six. Both of McCabe’s goals on Thursday came when he moved into the high slot and shot through heavy traffic. The first came on a nice feed from Riley Barber after Barber’s initial shot was stopped, while the second came off a rush led by Rocco Grimaldi.
-The Gaudreau-Miller-Vesey line continued to be everything a first line should be. After struggling to get going in the first three games, they have been on an absolute tear in the last three. Gaudreau has seven goals and two assists in that span, Miller has one goal and six assists, and Vesey has one goal and four assists. Gaudreau’s first goal on Thursday came on a great individual effort, as he toe-dragged around Ryan Murphy before firing a shot over Malcolm Subban’s glove. Vesey’s goal came on a nice play by the whole line — Miller found Gaudreau with a pass through the neutral zone, then Gaudreau hit Vesey on the wing. Vesey did the rest, as he turned Xavier Ouellet inside-out before beating Subban blocker-side. Gaudreau’s third goal came on a great pass by Miller that sprung Gaudreau on a breakaway.
-Gibson played another phenomenal game in goal, as he stopped 33 of 34 shots. As has been the case all tournament, the defense in front of him deserves credit for keeping a lot of those shots to the outside and clearing out rebounds. But Gibson was still tested plenty, which has to be expected against a team with as much talent as Canada, and he was up to every challenge. In the first period, he made a big kick save on a rebound chance for J.C. Lipon that could’ve tied the game at 1-1. Early in the second, he just got his glove on a great chance for Jonathan Huberdeau, then stretched across the crease to rob Ryan Strome minutes later. The highlight of the third period was a beautiful glove save on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who found himself alone in the slot. There wasn’t much Gibson could’ve done on Canada’s lone goal, as it came on a defensive breakdown that gave Ty Rattie two chances from right in front.
What I thought
-Even the most optimistic American fan could not have expected this. A win? Sure. Given how close their first meeting was, a win wouldn’t have been shocking. But a complete dismantling? No. Those just don’t happen to Canada, not in this tournament, and not by the U.S. It was the Americans’ most lopsided win over Canada since 1981, and that one came in a relatively meaningless relegation round game. They hadn’t even beaten Canada by more than a goal since 1999. The four-goal defeat was the worst for Canada in a medal-round game since 1996. And this wasn’t a fluky 5-1 win either. The game really was as lopsided as the score would suggest. The Americans exploited Canada’s defense with their speed and puck movement, and all five of their goals were the result of skill plays rather than lucky bounces. In its own zone, the U.S. kept most of the Canadians’ shots to the outside and made it tough for them to really establish a net-front presence. Sixteen of the Canadians’ 34 shots came in the third period, when they started to throw everything on net out of desperation.
-I mentioned the offensive contributions from the U.S. defensemen, but they deserve recognition for their defensive play as well. That’s their first responsibility, and they’ve done a great job of making sure they take care of that before they jump into the offense. Trouba, McCabe and Connor Murphy have been great in their own zone all tournament, while Jones and Mike Reilly have gotten better and better after struggling out of the gate. Coach Phil Housley’s decision to put Jones with McCabe and Reilly with Murphy certainly helped Jones and Reilly settle down. Shayne Gostisbehere had been playing very well, but he was suspended for the last game and didn’t see a whole lot of playing time on Thursday either. In his place, Patrick Sieloff has been a rock, as he’s managed to assert himself physically without getting into penalty trouble.
-Canada pulled Subban after Team USA’s fourth goal, but you can’t blame him for the loss. The Canadians got badly outplayed, and his defense hung him out to dry on all four goals. If there was a criticism to be made, it would be that he didn’t make the big save to bail his defense out when they needed it. But none of the goals Subban surrendered were soft. He had been very good for Canada prior to Thursday, and was a huge reason Canada beat the U.S. the first time they met.
What else you should know
-The U.S. will be playing for its second gold medal in the last four years, and third in the last 10. The Americans are 2-1-0 all-time in the gold medal game.
-After winning five straight golds from 2005 to 2009, Canada will now have gone four years without one. If the Canadians win the bronze medal game, it will be their 15th straight year winning a medal.
Update: Sweden beat Russia 3-2 in a shootout in Thursday’s second semifinal, so the Americans will face the defending gold medalists on Saturday. Canada and Russia will play for the bronze.