After four solid days of practice and team bonding, the players hoping to represent the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship took to the ice at the Mullins Center on the University of Massachusetts’ campus to compete against the UMass Minutemen. For some of the players this was the first time they had pulled on the USA jersey in game play. And though this is an exhibition game in many ways, Team USA head coach Ron Wilson made it clear that he expected his team to come out strong from the first puck drop. He, his staff and Team USA’s management were paying close attention to what the players brought in competition.
During the first period of play it was clear that the UMass Minutemen had been playing together longer as Team USA had some misconnects on passes and a little bit of miscommunication. However, even with these issues they were a strong team. They managed to control the puck and have the majority of the offensive zone time, which ultimately found rewards with a goal at 12:16 of the period – a nice shot from Nick Schmaltz in the high slot, with assists from Ryan MacInnis and Anders Bjork. When the buzzer announced the end of the period Team USA had 13 shots on their opponent, with one going in, and had kept the Minutemen to 7 shots. However, it did look a little like either the Minutemen were defensively sound or that Team USA was allowing the Minutement to push them to the outside.
“It was mostly our fault. We had guys standing in front of the net and the guy’s supposed to be there and screen the goalie and they would step out of the way at the last second and give the goalie an opportunity to see the puck,” said Coach Wilson. “In the second period and the third period when we were on the power play we had much better net front presence.”
Coming out in the second period, it was clear that Team USA was more comfortable as a team. They continued to dominate the offensive zone. Shortly after the halfway point of the game, at 11:52, Sonny Milano, who plays for the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL during the regular season, put Team USA up by two, with an assist from Christian Dvorak. When the whistle stopped play with about 9:52 remaining in the period, Team USA switched goalies, not because Alex Nedeljkovic hadn’t done well—he had a shutout going—but to ensure that both he and Brandon Halverson would have some game experience before the team heads to Finland. However Coach Wilson did mention that he thought hard about that, talking about the pressure it can put on the incoming goalie because of the shutout.
Third period had been the period that Wilson had hoped that Team USA could “coast,” but it was clear that there were still things to get done. At the five minute mark, Milano would put up his second goal on the game with an assist from defenseman Will Borgen And then 42 seconds later Milano would get the second assist on Colin White’s goal, one of his line mates, with the primary assist going to the third of that forward line Dvorak (his second point on the night).
That would end the scoring for either team, but showed how powerful the Milano-Dvorak-White line could be. That line would have 13 shots on goal and would combine for six points, including three of the four goals. While everyone has their eyes on Arizona native Auston Matthews—who did not play in the game—going into the tournament, it was clear that the game showcased another strong unit and others on Team USA did their best to showcase their right to remain with the team, something that Coach Wilson had challenged the players after practice in the morning.
“Generally yeah. Again it’s hard for me to comment right after the game but we have to have some good discussions in the next ten minutes or so to decide what we’re going to do with our team,” Wilson said of the difficult decisions facing his staff after the strong showing of all the players.
Wilson stressed throughout the week that he wants the players to be “selfish” with the puck—take opportunities to shoot the puck on goal rather than passing it—and there were some instances during Friday’s game where passes were made when shots should have been taken.
“Yeah, I mean, we were just kind of looking for each other. All new. It’s our first time playing with each other, so I guess trying to at least get some chemistry,” Milano said. “But, yeah, in the tournament we’re gonna have to maybe look off some passes and just take a shot or maybe go for a rebound if you want to get it to a guy or something, but you can’t be too fancy. Not going to get a lot of chances in the tournament, so we gotta bury it when we get those chances.”
Some tough decisions coming for Team USA coaching staff and management, but all the players recognize the honor and great opportunity they have had to even be included in camp. They will be sad to see some new friends leave, but are focused on the goal at hand which is to compete hard in Finland.
Full interview with Coach Ron Wilson and forwards Milano, White, and Dvorak:
Full interview with Coach John Micheletto and forward Shane Walsh and goaltender Alex Wakaluk: