Bronze Anything But A Bust

Work Ethic And Team Chemistry Worth Their Weight In Gold For Underdog American Squad
Nick Salen

Analytics may be all the rage in hockey these days, but there’s one thing that puck possession metrics to faceoff percentages won’t do. They can’t measure heart.

When the U.S. Men’s National Team roster was announced for the 2015 IIHF World Championship, critics were quick to say “red, white and who?” when looking at the 25 players named to the squad.

The group was an eclectic mix of seasoned NHL role players and talented but untested collegians, all backed up by a pair of minor league netminders. On paper, it looked like a mismatch when compared to other teams loaded with NHL superstars.

It’s an annual rite of passage as American fans focus on the players who have turned down an invitation to play rather than celebrate those who have answered their country’s call.

Jim Johannson has heard it all before and has learned to play the hand he’s dealt when it comes to fielding a competitive team.

“We can say all we want about the player pool, but in the end we want players who want to play in the Championships,” said Johannson, who is part of the U.S. management team. “Our focus is on having consistent performances there.”

And that’s exactly what the U.S. Men’s National Team delivered over the course of two weeks in the Czech Republic. And when the ice chips settled, the Americans headed home with the hardware after shutting out the hosts, 3-0, to earn the bronze medal.

Connor Hellebuyck, a rising star in the Winnipeg Jets organization, was solid in goal for the United States, leading all tournament goaltenders in goals-against average and save percentage.Connor Hellebuyck, a rising star in the Winnipeg Jets organization, was solid in goal for the United States, leading all tournament goaltenders in goals-against average and save percentage.

It was the second medal the Americans have earned in a span of three years, a feat that has not been accomplished since Harry Truman occupied the Oval Office.

“I think another bronze medal, the second in three years, is a great accomplishment,” Johannson said. “We played 10 national teams and won eight of those games. That’s a big accomplishment.”

Not bad for a young team that had been written off before the puck dropped in Prague.

All the talk from the peanut gallery didn’t bother Matt Hendricks who, despite representing the U.S. for the first time, was the perfect veteran to lead the younger skaters through the challenges of a grueling international tournament.

“I don’t know if we used it so much as motivation. We obviously knew the expectations. From the outside looking in they weren’t that high; a lot of the media and such didn’t really think we had a chance to medal,” said the 34-year-old team captain.

“We knew we didn’t have the experience, but we had the ability. We had guys who could score goals, but we had to outwork our opponents.”

And that work ethic started with their captain and permeated through the entire lineup. The end result was a team that quickly gained the respect of the hockey world due to its blue-collar mentality.

Starting with an impressive 5-1 victory over a solid Finnish team, the Americans continued their hot hand with wins over Norway (2-1), Russia (4-2), Denmark (1-0), Slovenia (3-1) and Slovakia (5-4, OT). In fact a 5-2 loss to Belarus would serve as the Americans’ only blemish in the preliminary round.

“The passion and the energy that everybody brought was pretty incredible,” said forward Brock Nelson, who led the U.S. with four goals and six assists.

“I think you could see how motivated everybody was, the young guys all the way through to our leader with Hendy. I think top to bottom everybody did a great job of buying in and having jump and energy throughout the tournament.”

Perhaps no one stepped up bigger than unheralded goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck and Jack Campbell. While lacking the NHL experience of many of their international counterparts, both netminders made the most of their opportunities when called upon.

Hellebuyck, a Winnipeg Jets prospect who played last season in the AHL, outshined some well-known netminders in the tournament, including Finland’s Pekka Rinne and Russia’s Sergei Bobrovski, leading all goaltenders with a 1.37 goals-against average and a 94.79 save percentage.

The U.S. rode the hot hand of Connor Hellebuyck, who stymied the host Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game.The U.S. rode the hot hand of Connor Hellebuyck, who stymied the host Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game.

“We’ve always thought Connor and Jack are good prospects, but the reality is that at some point guys have to get an opportunity,” Johannson said.

“I’m happy that they had the opportunity to play there, and if that benefits them down the road then that’s going to help us.”

The other bright spot was the play of the team’s five college players, each of whom showed great poise to go along with the skill that has NHL teams jockeying for their services.

Among them was Jack Eichel, who is projected to be a top pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. After a whirlwind season at Boston University where he won the Hobey Baker Award while leading his team to the NCAA championship game, Eichel looked right at home on international ice against some of the top players in the world.

His overtime goal against Slovakia gave the U.S. the top spot in Group B and left many of his more experienced teammates raving about his skills.

“I know when I was his age and a freshman in college I definitely wasn’t ready for that type of hockey,” Hendricks said.

Matt Hendricks provided solid leadership on and off the ice as the captain of the U.S. squad.Matt Hendricks provided solid leadership on and off the ice as the captain of the U.S. squad.

“USA Hockey has done a tremendous job preparing these guys. They’re not just skilled players who can shoot the puck, they understand how to play a professional game.”

The U.S. kept the momentum going by toppling Switzerland in the quarterfinals, and matched the Russians stride for stride until a flurry of goals in the final 10 minutes sank their golden hopes.

“We carried the game for 50 minutes and [Russia] outplayed us for 10, and that’s when they won the game,” said Vancouver Canucks center Nick Bonino. “They had a lot of bona fide NHL stars and we fought them all the way to the middle of the third period.”

With less than 48 hours to rebound from the stinging loss, the U.S. rode the hot hand of Hellebuyck, who outdueled fellow Winnipeg Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec in front of a packed house at Prague’s O2 Arena.

“The common denominator for us winning this [bronze medal] game was #37.  He was the reason why we won,” said U.S. Head Coach Todd Richards.

The win sent Czech superstar Jaromir Jagr into retirement and the U.S. players heading home with a bronze-medal firmly in their grasp.

“We were excited to be here and be a part of it. A few of us haven’t played for the U.S. before and a lot of us haven’t played in a world championship,” said forward Ben Smith, who registered two goals in his first international appearance.

“It was a great opportunity to come here and play against some great competition and see what we could do.”

And show the world what they could do.



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