HELSINKI – One couldn’t have asked for a better all-around team effort when it mattered most – in a winner-goes-home elimination game against the defending world champions; a highly-talented offensive squad with a couple of world-class superstars.
If there ever was any doubt that hockey is a team game, U.S. head coach Joe Sacco’s youthful squad – which averages just 25.8 years-of-age, the youngest team in Helsinki – was irrefutable evidence of that in its resounding 8-3 victory over Russia on Thursday afternoon.
“It was a team effort from top to bottom; we needed every line, we knew we were going to have to contribute and shut them down. Our lines did that and that’s part of the reason we came out ahead,” said Ryan Carter, whose timely goal put the U.S. ahead 5-2 early in the third period, answering a score by Alexander Ovechkin just 1:32 earlier.
“We’ve come together collectively as a group…we’ve become a team,” said Sacco following the win. “We may not have some of the high profile names that you see on other teams, but we certainly play the game as a group. Our guys pull in the same direction all the time and I think that’s why were having success right now.”
Five of eight U.S. goals came from players scoring their first of the tournament; Craig Smith set an American single-game record with five assists; captain Paul Stastny added two goals and two assists continuing his torrid pace and 19-year-old goalie John Gibson got the job done, yet again, stopping 31-of-34 Russian shots, including a huge pad save on Ovechkin in the game’s opening minute.
Gibson, who will turn 20 in July, is the second-youngest goalie to win in a world championship playoff game, with Russian legend Vladislav Tretiak being the only younger to accomplish the feat.
“He’s been unbelievable, he’s calm, and he plays a steady game,” said U.S. captain Stastny about Gibson. “I don’t think he cares who he plays, he’s always going to play the same way and that’s why we have confidence playing a 19-year-old in the biggest game against Russia.”
“I just took it like every other game, go out and have fun and play your game,” said the soft-spoken Gibson, who led the U.S. to World Junior gold in January in Ufa, Russia.
Gibson not only denied Ovechkin, but also Ilya Kovalchuk and Fyodor Tyutin in the opening ten minutes. Team USA jumped out to a 2-0 lead shortly thereafter, on goals by Stastny and T.J. Oshie.
Oshie, playing in his just his second game in the tournament since his arrival to Helsinki on Monday night, was one of the five players to notch his first goal on Thursday.
“I think it just goes to show the depth we have,” said Oshie. “The tightness in the locker room makes us a really scary team. We’re playing for one another and its great to see everyone chipping in.”
Team USA played a high-tempo, fast-paced game, creating and taking advantage of turnovers by Russia, and scoring multiple goals on the counter-attack.
“It’s great…it’s huge momentum, especially this late in the tournament to get some guys really going,” said Smith, about the team sharing the wealth of offense. “We were just getting pucks on net and it was a good win.”
Alex Galchenyuk – whose father was a member of the former Soviet Union National team – tallied his first goal of the tournament displaying a spectacular move that fooled Russian goalie Ilya Bryzgalov badly, giving the U.S. its first three-goal lead with 3:30 remaining in the second period. Moments later, Bryzgalov was pulled from the net in favor of Semyon Varlamov.
While it was a huge boost with some new players getting their names on the scoresheet, the Team USA’s most productive line of Stastny, Smith and David Moss once again led the charge. Stastny contributed two goals and two assists and Smith’s five assists in a game was one shy of the world championship record.
“That line has been a juggernaut all tournament,” said Nate Thompson, one of the five players to score for the first time in the tournament, about the Stastny line. “They’ve stepped up with some big goals and they haven’t stopped.”
“Our captain Paul Stastny has played extremely well,” said Sacco. “He continues to be the catalyst of our team offensively, but defensively also. He’s a great two-way player.”
Team USA’s offensive firepower, which came fast and furious at times, included an astounding three goals in a span of 1:56, the first of the trio coming 8:11 into the third period. The three tallies, coming from Jacob Trouba, Moss and Stastny gave the U.S. an 8-3 lead and essentially sealed the victory.
The eight goals was three more than the most-ever scored by the United States against Russia at the world championship.
“We didn’t expect that to happen,” said Thompson about the eight-goal offensive outburst. “We just wanted to win the hockey game.”
Sacco, who is making his debut as head coach of the U.S. National Team in Helsinki, knows something about beating the Russians at the IIHF World Championship. The 44-year-old coach played for the red, white and blue in victories over Russia in 1996 in a bronze medal-winning contest played in Vienna, Austria, and again in the quarterfinals at the 1994 tournament.
“It’s a big victory for our group and we feel proud of our accomplishment to be able to beat such a quality opponent,” Sacco said. “We’re excited that we get to move on and play for a medal.”
It’s due west over the Baltic Sea en route to Stockholm for Team USA, where they will play in the tournament semifinals and a medal game for the first time since 2004, when they claimed bronze in Prague, Czech Republic.
“We take another step crossing over to Sweden and that’s what we came here for,” Sacco said.
The United States faces Switzerland on Saturday, a team that enters the game undefeated at 8-0, following its 2-1 quarterfinal triumph over the Czech Republic.
“We’re going to be a pretty excited group when we get there,” Smith said about the trip to Stockholm on Friday morning. “We’re a bunch of young guys so we’re just excited to play hockey wherever we go.”