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  • World Junior Hockey 2017: Team USA struggles early, but finds its groove against Latvia.


    For its first preliminary-round game of the 2017 World Junior Championship, Team USA was fortunate to face an undermanned Team Latvia, as the Americans took the first period and then some to figure things out.  Though it opened the game with great puck control and a sequence of prime scoring chances, USA’s defensemen were a bit overly aggressive in the first thirty minutes of the game, resulting in an array of odd-man rushes for the Latvians, including two breakaways.  In fact, the teams went to the locker room after one period tied 1-1, with an “anyone’s game” feeling to the match-up.  If the US had opened against a more skilled opponent, such as Canada or Russia, they likely would have fallen behind quickly, as they defended poorly to start the game.  In this contest, however, Team USA would eventually show that it is supremely skilled, and little by little, they began to dominate play as the Latvians wore down and began giving more away in their own defensive zone.  If anything, it should be a good building block as Team USA grows as a unit and looks to improve before moving into more challenging match-ups.

    Minnesota Wild prospect Luke Kunin drew an early penalty by driving hard to the net, and while USA didn’t convert on the ensuing power play, Patrick Harper of Boston University scored from the high slot moments after the penalty expired.  With USA largely controlling the play, it looked like it could run away with the game quickly in those opening fifteen minutes, but they only capitalized once.  Latvia would fight back, showing some life in the second portion of that opening frame, with Martins Dzierkals displaying some nice skills that put USA on its heels on a few occasions.  Dzierkals appears to have the skills to one day be an impactful player in the NHL, showing why the Toronto Maple Leafs are high on their 2015 third-round draft pick.  He’s quick, has great hands, and plays with a bit of an edge.  Though Dzierkals was unable to find the back of the net, Latvia would tie the game late in the 1st period, after a pass in the offensive zone by the United States was deflected and skittered all the way out to center ice.  The puck landed on the stick of forward Renars Krastenbergs of the Oshawa Generals, who was coming off the bench on a line change.  He got behind the USA defense and showed nice speed to separate himself on the breakaway before calmly depositing a backhander over the outstretched glove of USA goaltender Tyler Parsons.

    In the opening minutes of the second period, Parsons faced a few more golden opportunities for the Latvians, with the US defense being a little overly aggressive on the offensive end of the ice, leading to several odd-man rushes.  Parsons slammed the door shut on a second clear-cut breakaway, though, signaling that he was no longer interested in allowing goals against the over-matched Latvian side.  Despite only facing twelve shots on the night, Parsons made a few sensational saves to allow his team to continue attacking and separate themselves on the scoreboard.  Minutes after the breakaway save by Parsons, with a delayed penalty coming, WJC veteran Colin White took a pass at the left face-off circle from UConn’s Tage Thompson, which put White on a partial breakaway of his own with Latvian goaltender Mareks Mitens.  White made a nice move to his forehand and fired a quick snapshot off the underside of the crossbar and down, beating Mitens and giving Team USA its second goal of the game.  The Americans would continue to make things a little harder on themselves than they needed to, though, taking two penalties in quick succession midway through the second, while holding that same 2-1 lead.  They killed off that 5-on-3, and they slowly settled down and took control of the game from there.  After several minutes of offensive zone time, and with just over a minute left in the second period, White got the puck again in the high slot and sent a soft snapshot on net.  Mitens was unable to handle it cleanly, and the rebound off of his right leg pad slid just to the edge of the blue paint, where Clayton Keller was waiting and calmly put it home, giving the US a 3-1 lead as they went to the locker room for the second intermission.  

    Team USA maintained that margin until the 12:19 mark of the third period, when Keller stripped Latvian defenseman Karlis Cukste at the left hash, circled to the top of the slot and fired a rocket of a wrist shot against the grain on Mitens, beating him to the glove side.  Keller’s second of the game finally broke the game open and put it out of reach for Latvia.  USA would add two more goals in the final two minutes of the game, giving it a more substantial victory.

    The Wild prospects that played in the game for USA were both impactful.  Jordan Greenway made his physical presence known, always getting in the face of the goaltender and being involved in extra-curriculars after what seemed like every whistle.  At 6’5” tall, Greenway is definitely a big, physical forward, who looks to get under the skin of his opponents.  He handles and protects the puck well when he gets it on his stick, and he has the look of one day becoming a prototypical power forward.  He scored in the final minute of the game off a rebound from fellow Wild prospect Kunin, who had batted the puck out of midair.  Kunin had a nice game as well, earning the assist on Greenway’s goal, drawing an early penalty by driving in on net, and narrowly missing a goal of his own with a shot off the post in the first period.  With the game tied, he also blocked a big shot in the opening minutes of the second period that shook him up, but essentially nullified a Latvian power play when they had a chance to take the lead in the game.

    While it wasn’t the start-to-finish domination that Head Coach Bob Motzko would have wanted, Team USA ultimately completed a convincing win, and should feel good as it heads into their next game against Slovakia on Wednesday.  Chalk this one up to growing pains for now, but USA will look for more complete performances in the remaining preliminary games.

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