The difficulty in assessing the United States' 7-0 rout over the Czech Republic in the world junior quarter-final Wednesday, is the same as it was in evaluating Canada's 4-1 victory over the Russians, which gave them top spot in the preliminary round and a bye directly into the semi-finals.
In both cases, the games were largely decided by special teams, which can be so fickle in these sorts of events. Against Russia, Canada moved out to an early lead, thanks to a major hitting from behind penalty the Russians took against defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon. Once ahead, Canada played a solid game defensively to keep the Russians from ever getting back into the contest.
Earlier today, the Czechs took a ridiculous number of penalties against the Americans, which permitted the U.S. to score five times with the man advantage – three by John Gaudreau – and it wasn't much of a contest beyond the first minute of the second period.
The U.S. is coached by Phil Housley, a familiar figure from his NHL playing days. Housley was an offensive whiz kid back in the day - excellent at making the first pass; very good at running the power play; but often a liability defensively because of the nature of NHL play during his career. In his dreams, Housley must surely ponder how he was born into the exact wrong era – and that he would have been far more suited to today's game, where positional play in front of the goal has replaced hacking and whacking as a defensive style, and you can get away without a physical dimension if you're small and clever with the puck.
But the lesson of Housley's playing days – make them pay for ill-advised penalties – has clearly sunk in on this American team, which was just 2-2 in the preliminary round, but thanks to the forgiving nature of the world junior format, can eliminate Canada with a win in Thursday's first of two semi-final games.
The U.S. also scored three power-play goals in their victory over the Slovaks to avoid the relegation round and scored its only goal in losses to Canada and the Russians with the man advantage.
It means game planning for this one is going to be easy for Canadian coach Steve Spott. If the Canadians can get their fore-check going; and force the U.S. into taking penalties, all the while staying out of the penalty box themselves, then you'd have to like their chances.
Gaudreau, the pint-sized Boston College winger and a Calgary Flames' draft choice, is the finisher on the power play. Gaudreau is listed at five-foot-six, which immediately makes you wonder what his NHL viability may eventually be, but anybody who watched Calgary play in their glory years will tell you that the same questions were also asked about Joey Mullen and Theo Fleury, both of whom went on to have special NHL careers.
Also emerging as a major force on the U.S. power play is the point man Jacob Trouba, the Winnipeg Jets' top pick in the 2012 entry draft. Trouba can unload bombs from the point, but has a huge physical presence as well. Comparisons to former world junior stars are inevitable because Trouba's skill set can remind you of the early Dion Phaneuf some times and of Shea Weber at others. The Jets have to like what they've seen so far of Trouba in terms of his development thus far.
Five-on-five, the greater American threat appears to be Alex Galchenyuk, the Russian-speaking, U.S. born centre, who has a little bit of that Evgeni Malkin ability to slice through the middle of the offensive zone, draw coverage towards him and then dish the puck off to an open winger. If both teams can stay out of the penalty box – unlikely really, considering how much speed they both have – then Galchenyuk has the ability to create something out of nothing, in the same way Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can for the Canadians.
The U.S. wasn't scoring many goals early in the tournament, but they got their confidence going by pounding 16 past the Slovaks and Czechs in successive game. Defensively, thanks to Anaheim Ducks' goaltending prospect John Gibson, who plays his junior hockey for Spott in Kitchener, they've been exceptional, surrendering just seven goals in five games.
The U.S. didn't even qualify for medal-round play last year in Alberta, while Canada lost to the Russians in a game they fell behind in early, and almost salvaged with a brilliant late rally. So redemption is at hand for either the six returning Canadian players or the three that are back for the U.S. – and ultimately, it will likely go to the team that demonstrates the greatest amount of poise and composure. The world junior tournament always requires a certain amount to get past the mostly meaningless preliminaries, but from here on in? It should be lots of fun to watch.