They said it couldn’t be done. Even most observers including myself didn’t think it would happen. Don’t tell that to Trevor Zegras or any of the victorious Team USA after their stunning 2-0 upset over Canada to capture gold at the World Junior Championship in Edmonton last night.
To their credit, they believed. When interviewed by NHL Network reporter Jill Savage prior to the big gold medal game, Zegras didn’t mince words. Feeling that superb Canadian starting goalie Devon Levi “hadn’t been tested at even strength,” he felt his team could win. This was a bit cocky and showed a lot of swag. But that’s the approach and attitude the Americans needed to pull it off against a great opponent that still boasted 19 first round picks.
When it was all over, there was no doubt who the best team was in the well orchestrated U20 IIHF WJC ’21. USA won their first gold at the prestigious tournament since 2017 when Troy Terry beat Canada in a wild shootout. Astonishingly, they have won all four meetings versus their number one rival since the turn of the century. There were remarkable victories in ’04, ’10 and the aforementioned ’17. They improved to 4-1 all-time against Canada in World Junior Championship Finals. It was the fifth time they’ve won gold also doing so in ’13 over Sweden. All five victories have come on foreign soil.
Matched up against a very talented roster that had outscored opponents 41-4 and never trailed coming in, USA came out slow. Looking tight due to the speed and tenacity of the Canada forecheck, they turned pucks over which lead to some early scoring chances against starting goalie Spencer Knight. In a tournament he started slowly in getting the hook versus Russia on Dec. 26, even backing up Dustin Wolf in the second preliminary match, the Florida Panthers 2019 first round pick got stronger as the WJC went on. It showed in the game’s first few minutes.
With USA failing to clear the zone, Knight stood tall in net. He thwarted the early push from Canada and gave his team a chance to get the nerves out. Eventually, they settled down. A turning point in the first period was a key shift from the second line of Matthew Beniers, Cole Caufield and Matthew Boldy. Able to finally get the puck in deep, the cohesive trio cycled effectively to generate some quality chances against Levi. He was forced into some tough saves. There was also a close call. With Levi and the pinned in Canadian defense losing track of a wide open Caufield, he was all set up for the game’s first goal. However, he fanned on it. The 2019 Canadiens first round pick had at least four opportunities to score, but didn’t.
Even though they didn’t score, that enormous shift helped tilt the ice in the opposite direction. Finally able to sustain an attack, the USA top line went to work again. The first line of Zegras, Alex Turcotte and semifinal hero Arthur Kaliyev won the battles. After a shot was fired wide, Zegras recovered the loose puck behind the net, came out and passed up top for a good right point shot from Drew Helleson (Avalanche). His low shot took a funny dip down going perfectly to Turcotte, who was able to neatly deflect it past Levi for the game’s first goal at 13:25.
The reaction from the skaters and the American bench said it all. To get that all important first goal on Canada, who hadn’t trailed, was huge. They finally faced some adversity. Something Zegras hinted at in his pregame interview. The other interesting thing he told Savage was that maybe they could get a couple past Levi. It’s uncanny how prophetic he proved to be. He was the Tournament Most Valuable Player after scoring a goal and assist to tie the American record for most points ever in the WJC with 27. No small feat since he joined Jeremy Roenick and Jordan Schroeder.
Following the Turcotte tally, USA was more aggressive. They did a better job in the neutral zone and using their skating to pressure the Canadian defense. In particular, they were able to work pucks from low to high to create good shots on goal that Levi handled. An over aggressive Bobby Brink took an ill advised tripping minor penalty in the offensive zone with 3:22 left in the period to hand Canada a power play.
On it, they certainly moved the puck well enough. They created a few good chances. Only two shots got through which a sharp Knight stopped to keep USA ahead by a goal after one. The opportunities that didn’t reach him were defended well by his penalty killers, who sold out to block shots and get in lanes to force attempts wide. A theme throughout the successful World Junior Championship for Team USA. It was that attention to detail that came through.
Following intermission, head coach Nate Leaman opted to put out his best scoring line to start the second. It was a wise decision that paid off immediately. With the five man unit applying early pressure, Kaliyev threw a shot wide behind the net. With no Canadian skater able to locate the loose puck, Zegras quickly retrieved it and surprised an unsuspecting Levi with a sneaky backhand wraparound to score USA’s second goal just 32 seconds into the period. It was shocking. Just like that, the underdog Americans led 2-0 and 21 minutes hadn’t even been played.
There were more high fives and a loud bench when Zegras and his teammates returned. You could tell how much it meant to go up two on heavy favorite Canada. To think that less than 24 hours prior, they blew a two-goal lead to Finland before Turcotte fed Kaliyev for the stirring game-winner with 1:16 left in a wild third period. That both goals came at five-on-five proved Zegras right. Maybe he channeled his inner Mark Messier. He is from Bedford, New York. The Ducks should be extremely excited about Zegras. What a player.
For a while, the goal seemed to shake Canada’s confidence. USA continued to carry the play due to their aggressive forecheck. They also had fewer problems getting out of their zone. Was it going to be that easy? There was still half the game left. At one point, shots favored USA 19-9. They even had a rare power play midway through which almost proved costly.
With Jakob Pelletier off for hooking, the Americans got a little sloppy. Following two good chances for Kaliyev which Levi stopped by closing the door, a bad turnover at the USA blueline fueled a Canadian transition. It was one-on-one between Canada captain Bowen Byram and Knight. All alone on Knight, the number one defenseman faked and sent a backhand off the goalpost. He was that close to scoring a shorthanded goal which could’ve changed the complexion. Even though he didn’t score, the great chance seemed to finally wake up his team.
The rest of the period was mostly Canada finishing every check and spending a lot of time in the USA defensive zone. You had Rangers first round pick Braden Schneider jumping into the rush and getting some good looks on Knight including a pointblank one in which Knight challenged and got enough of to push it wide. He also swallowed up a couple of more Schneider offerings. This was the most active the future Ranger looked for Canada.
When they weren’t forcing Knight into clutch stops like the one he had on Connor Zary (Flames) and Cole Perfetti (Jets), the hitting was fierce. Especially when recent second pick Quinton Byfield dropped the hammer on a rush. He is a big boy. The physicality was fun to watch as was the frenetic pace. Even though they only could muster two more shots on Levi the rest of the way, USA didn’t sit back. They used a few counters to create chances. But Caufield missed the net and Brett Berard sent a dangerous shot from the slot wide. The dangerous Zegras had another good opportunity that didn’t make its mark.
By the end of the second, it was clearly obvious that Knight was in Canada’s heads. He was tracking everything. Canada went from 19-9 down in shots to within 20-19 entering the third period. When asked between periods what they needed to do to win, Turcotte told Savage that they had to keep moving forward and play their game.
As so often happens when you have a two-goal lead, USA sat back more than they should have. It wasn’t by design. They were simply outgunned by a very desperate and talented Canadian team searching for anything. Even if that meant delivering a couple of ferocious checks with one in particular illegal (Play On), they came out with a sense of urgency. Ironically, the whole third was played at even strength. Only two penalties were called by the officials.
The further the period went on, the more it looked like it was a matter if time before Canada found a goal. It never came. Oh. They sure dominated by sending 15 shots Knight’s way. It’s just that he was in the zone. He took away everything down low and when he didn’t make key stops, it was due to his defense. Team USA still defended the house well with both defensemen and forwards doing whatever it took to keep Canada off the scoreboard. American captain Cam York had a stellar defensive game making some superb reads to break up Canadian scoring chances. He struggled mightily versus Finland.
If it wasn’t the defense or Knight standing on his head, you had the forwards coming back to make big plays. That included a gritty Brink diving in front of a shot attempt to block it and get the puck out. It was that kind of yeoman effort that epitomized USA on Tuesday night at Rogers Place. They played like a T-E-A-M. Despite getting outshot 15-1 by Canada, the scrappy Americans never broke. They bent, but didn’t break.
Having a hot goalie helps. In crunch time, Knight was special. On one sequence, he instinctively kicked out his legs to deny a great chance when he didn’t see the shot. His best save came when he absolutely stoned Zary on the doorstep with over two minutes left in regulation. After letting out a rebound, Knight did a full stretch to stack the pads on a Zary try from in tight. The puck stuck to him enough to get a whistle. Another ridiculous save saw him go down on his back and put together his pads to keep a puck from leaking out. He also denied Connor McMichael on a mini-break by challenging to force a backhand off his pads and wide to the exasperation of McMichael. He felt back pressure from Helleson.
It was a brilliant performance. For the game, Knight finished with 34 saves including stopping all 15 to pitch a Team USA tournament record third shutout.
His great goaltending was the story. Even the brilliant Dylan Cozens (8-8-16) couldn’t find a way to get a puck by him. Cozens was the best Canadian forward finishing the WJC with a team best 16 points. Only Zegras had more with his goal and helper giving him 18 (7-11-18).
With Levi pulled, Canada couldn’t find a goal. They sure gave it their best effort. It just wasn’t their night. As the clock wound down, Team USA poured off the bench to celebrate a hard earned victory. It’s one they won’t ever forget. As Canadian players stood in shock with some tears shed, a determined American team went nuts showing the pure joy only teenagers can show after such a significant win. They deserved it. They beat the best.
For the game, Canada finished with a 34-21 edge in shots. They outshot USA 25-1 after trailing in shots 19-9. Despite that, it never materialized. There was no dramatic ending like the previous three gold medal match-ups. It felt strange. To think a game of that magnitude wasn’t decided by a goal is hard to believe. It speaks to how well Knight played. He won the game’s Best Player for USA while they awarded Byram Best Player for Canada. I didn’t agree. I felt it was Schneider, who had a superb game. Byram had a couple of uncharacteristic turnovers. He will be a great defenseman. It’s scary to think one day soon, Byram could join Cale Makar with possibly Helleson down the line. Yikes.
The best part that I always love is the award ceremony. They do an outstanding job. As hard as it was seeing the heartbroken Canadian kids presented their silver medals by captain Byram and a tournament official, it was still special. Even without fans, you had even the equipment managers, video coordinators and trainers being recognized. There’s so much hard work that goes into it.
As part of the final ceremony, Devon Levi was named Top Goalie with Finland’s Topi Niemela tabbed Top Defenseman. As expected Germany’s Tim Stutzle was named Top Forward. An honor he deserved. They nearly beat Russia even if it wasn’t the strongest Russian team. Stutzle will surely make the Senators out of camp and be in the Calder conversation. Something I expect both Turcotte and Zegras to be part of along with Cozens. Keep an eye on Kirill Kaprizov of the Wild. A 23-year old Minnesota fifth round pick who dominated the KHL the past two seasons.
The All Tournament Team was revealed by the writers. It didn’t miss the mark. Even though I felt there could’ve been a place for Knight as the goalie, Levi was selected alongside defensemen Bowen Byram and Ville Heinola. The three forwards were as expected with Dylan Cozens, Trevor Zegras and Stutzle getting the nod.
When they were presented their gold medals by captain York along with a tournament official, there were a lot of hugs and high fives. This meant a lot to these players. Many of which were on the U18 team that lost to Canada in crushing fashion at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup semifinals. A game that Cozens tied in controversial fashion with his goal coming as the buzzer expired. Replays showed that the puck crossed the line after the clock was at zero. They counted it and Canada won 6-5 in overtime on a Josh Williams goal.
A few USA players alluded to that loss prior to last night’s big game. A lot of players still were on the two rosters. But not Jack Hughes or Alexis Lafreniere. You wonder if that defeat served as extra motivation. Who knows. At the end of the day, they were victorious due to the clutch performances of Knight, Kaliyev, Turcotte and Tournament MVP Zegras.
But more than that, everyone contributed. That includes underrated third line John Farinacci, Brink and Berard. The fourth line featured Patrick Moynihan, John Slaggert and Brendan Brisson with Sam Colangelo taking four shifts. You had solid play from defensemen Ryan Johnson, Henry Thrun and Brock Faber. While they leaned a lot on York, Jake Sanderson and Helleson, it was a total team effort.
Congratulations to Team USA on winning gold. It was unexpected. They are the champions.