Team USA may have put forth a disappointing effort against Finland Wednesday, but their run at the World Junior Hockey Championship is far from over.
The IIHF World Junior Championships run for 11 days. Teams play four games in pool play, then if they're lucky enough to advance, two or three games in the medal round.
Since I started covering the event from afar in 2009, it's become clear to me that a team is allowed one mulligan. One game where it just doesn't click, for whatever reason.
For Team USA, that game was Wednesday, in its second game of the tournament. Finland shocked the Americans, 4-1, in front of a largely-Canadian (and, therefore, pro-Finland) crowd in Edmonton. Buffalo Sabres draft pick Joel Armia scored twice, and Minnesota Wild draftee Mikael Granlund had a back-breaking goal that went in off the skate of US defender Jon Merrill.
It wasn't a good effort by any stretch of the imagination, from the net out. Coach Dean Blais went with John Gibson in place of WJC veteran Jack Campbell in goal, and while it's unfair to pin the loss on Gibson, it is fair to pin the game's turning point on him.
In the third period of a 1-1 game, Team USA got a power play. Seconds into it, Gibson got in the way of a Finnish forward who was skating just outside Gibson's goal crease. The officials correctly called Gibson for interference, nullifying the power play and creating the four-on-four situation in which Armia netted the eventual game-winner.
Gibson was far from the only guilty party on the team. Defenseman Derek Forbort, in his second World Juniors, played like a rookie, coughing the puck up and losing puck battles along the wall. The Americans simply need more out of their most experienced -- at least at this level -- defenseman.
USA Hockey isn't terribly deep when it comes to under-20 defensemen, and that depth took a severe hit when Justin Faulk -- who would have been a strong candidate to be the captain of this team -- was not made available because he's playing 22 minutes a night with the Carolina Hurricanes. Then youngster Seth Jones was injured during a pre-tournament exhibition. Jones was expected to make a real impact on this team.
Two WJC rookies, Jarred Tinordi and Jacob Trouba, stood out as the top two blue-liners for the USA Wednesday. Tinordi moved the puck well, was physical at times, and was pretty steady in his own zone. Trouba made a couple great rushes to lead to scoring chances, and while he was the last line of defense on Armia's goal, the damage had already been done.
Blais knows better than anyone that a team in this event is permitted one bad performance. In reality, though, his team has only had one good period out of six -- the second period against Denmark. Outside of that, the Americans have been average or worse, and that won't work going forward.
The problem with taking your mulligan in a four-game round robin is it puts pressure on you. For the American team, that pressure starts Friday afternoon against the Czech Republic. A win puts them in position to potentially make the medal round, regardless of the result against Canada Saturday night. A loss would be disastrous, and even an overtime/shootout win (two points instead of three for a regulation win) could be damaging.
Blais is no stranger to the pressures of winning. He has over 300 wins and two national championships as a college coach. He led Team USA to the 2010 World Junior Championship gold medal in Saskatoon. He knows how to lead a team through adversity, and his players have been through it in their careers.
There's a reason why this tournament is set up to allow for a mulligan. Team USA might have preferred to use theirs in a later preliminary round game, but it can't change that now.
Similar to what the Americans got from Finland after a blowout loss to Canada Monday, the Czechs better prepare themselves, because they'll see the best the Americans have to offer on Friday afternoon.
Or, at least, that should be the plan.