If you could use just one word to describe Team USA at the 2019 World Junior Championship, it would be “speed.” Their roster was chock-full of great skaters, with two of the best being Canucks prospects.
Quinn Hughes, the Canucks’ top prospect, is a sublime skater, who flies around the ice with deceptive ease. He used his mobility, along with his fantastic hockey sense and passing, to be a one-man breakout for Team USA.
Tyler Madden, selected in the third round last year, can flat-out fly. He uses his speed to burn through the neutral zone and get in on the forecheck, but can also make plays at top speed and was a surprise top performer for Team USA in this tournament, with three goals and an assist in the four games of the preliminary round.
Team USA’s speed gave Russia fits during the semifinal. It seemed like every time Russia got the puck, there was immediately an American skater on top of them. Through the first half of the game, it seemed like their relentless forecheck and neutral zone pressure were going to completely smother Russia.
By the end of the game, however, Team USA seemed fortunate to finish ahead by a 2-1 score.
After all, Russia had the opening goal of the game called back as Nikita Shashkov directed the puck into the net with his skate. By NHL rules, it likely would have been a goal, as there was no kicking motion, but international rules are a little more strict.
Russia also pressed hard in the third period when they were down by one goal, particularly on the power play. They started the third period with the man advantage and peppered Cayden Primeau with shots, but the son of Keith Primeau stood tall, making save after save. And, when he didn’t, his defence bailed him out. A shot from Klim Kostin snuck through, but Phil Kemp cleared it off the goal line. It was so close to going in that Kemp had to sweep it off the post and out.
Primeau particularly frustrated Vitali Kravtsov, who finished the game with eight shots on goal, but couldn’t score. Kravtsov had three good chances on that power play in the third period, but Primeau turned them all aside.
Team USA was able to ride Primeau’s goaltending to the gold medal game thanks to two goals in the first 25 minutes. Oliver Wahlstrom opened the scoring off a great pass by Logan Cockerill off the rush. Then Jack Hughes set up Alexander Chmelevski at the top of the crease on the power play to make it 2-0 early in the second.
Quinn Hughes and Madden didn’t figure into the scoring and were largely kept quiet offensively, but there were still some significant positives to take away for both of them.
Madden was on a line with Jack Hughes, showing the belief his coaches have in him that he can be a difference maker offensively. It didn’t happen in this game — he had just one shot on goal — but he was noticeable on the forecheck and made some solid plays defensively, closing off lanes and getting the puck out of the defensive zone.
Quinn Hughes was constantly put under pressure by Russia, who seemed to have (correctly) identified him as the key to Team USA’s breakout. That led to a few more turnovers than usual for the young defenceman and a little less room for him to jump up in the rush.
The positive side of him spending more time in the defensive zone is that we got a larger look at his play in his own zone. While some defencemen make things difficult with opposing forwards with their size and reach, Hughes does the same with his skating and stick. Hughes quickly closed down gaps against Russia and used a smart stick to either keep forwards to the outside or to quickly divest them of the puck.
Overall, it wasn’t the best game for either Canucks prospect, but they were still able to make a difference for their team and help them hold off Russia’s strong push in the third period.
Now Hughes, Madden, and the rest of Team USA will play for gold in Vancouver on Saturday against whoever wins the other semifinal: Finland or Switzerland. They could potentially be facing another Canucks prospect in Toni Utunen, who ended Canada’s tournament with an overtime game-winner in Finland’s quarterfinal game.