The United States will not be undefeated in the 2018 World Juniors in its quest to repeat as champions. Last year, the United States rode four round robin wins into the quarterfinals before besting the Canadians in a memorable gold medal game.
Now, the hot-shot Americans will face their first real moment of adversity as the defending champions. On Thursday, the United States met a Slovakian opponent that had previously been blown out, 6-0, by the Canadians on the second day of the tournament. Team USA went into the match after routing Denmark, its previous opponent, in a 9-0 game on opening day.
Instead of cruising to victory like projected, the Americans were locked in a close game with the Slovaks, and they eventually fell, 3-2, to their Group A opponents. The loss came as quite a surprise, and though it was almost thwarted thanks to the heroics of Casey Mittelstadt in the final moments, it means Team USA has dropped to 1-1 in round robin play with a matchup with rival Canada on the way.
With the World Juniors being such a short tournament, losses in round robin play can make or break your standing for the quarterfinals. Let’s do a bit of digging into what this loss means for the United States’ hopes in this tournament.
2018 World Juniors Group A
The United States now sits in a three-way tie for second place in Group A with three points, leaving Canada in sole possession of the group’s top spot. Right now, the Americans get the edge with their goal differential total being so high, but they share a 1-1 record with Finland and Slovakia.
The top four teams of both Group A and B automatically advance to the playoff rounds. The good news is that the United States would need to lose the rest of its games — two of which are against Canada and Finland — and have Denmark not only win one game but absolutely crush them to flip the goal differential in their favor.
While the Americans are unlikely to fall into the relegation game with this loss, it does make their playoff matchup less desirable than if they were the top-seeded team in Group A.
Canada is the key
What was already the World Junior’s biggest draw this year just got a lot more interesting with the United States’ loss. Canada and the United States are set to play an outdoor game — the first in World Junior history — on Friday afternoon. Not only is the game a rematch of last year’s final, it’s a historic rivalry game that now has added implications.
The Americans didn’t play badly in their 3-2 loss on Thursday, but their defense was exposed, their goaltending subpar, and they were stopped by Slovak goaltender Roman Durny, who stood on his head for 43 saves. While the Canadians aren’t the strongest up front, they’re still a talented bunch that makes them a year-in and year-out favorite.
Friday’s game will either give the United States the same 2-1 record as Canada, or it’ll fall to 1-2 in the tournament as Canada clinches the top seed in Group A with a 3-0 record. IA loss means Saturday’s Slovakia vs. Finland game is nearly a must-see while Sunday’s Finland vs. United States game is a must-win.
We’re likely going to see what Team USA is made of after taking its first loss in this tournament. While it may cause a bit of stress in the meantime, the tournament’s biggest game just got a whole lot more meaningful.