MINSK, Belarus – In his return to world championship play for the first time since 2008, Stanley Cup champion and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas shut down a determined and aggressive Belarusian team as the U.S. defeated the tournament hosts 6-1.
With Belarus playing on its national holiday, Victory Day, and president Alexander Lukashenko in attendance, the U.S. did well to thwart an early surge in the opening five minutes, Thomas playing an integral role.
“They came at us right off the bat,” Thomas said after the win. “It was their first-ever world championship game on home turf and fortunately we were able to get the win to start the tournament.”
“The first half of the second period, they really put on a push and if they would have got one it could have been a different game,” Thomas said.
The 40-year-old Dallas Stars goalie denied 20 of 21 shots to earn the victory, only allowing a well-executed, power-play goal in the waning seconds of the second period.
“I thought Tim Thomas looked really sharp tonight especially early on. Belarus was very dangerous off the attack, they entered the zone with lots of possession and chances at the net,” said U.S. head coach Peter Laviolette.
“He looked like he was in control tonight, there weren’t a lot of rebounds and when there were, I thought our defense did a good job of clearing them,” Laviolette said.
Thomas is representing the U.S. at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships for the seventh time, his first appearance came in 1995. In 2008, he was between the pipes for the team’s opening two victories over Austria and Slovenia. Tonight’s win improves his international record to 3-2-0 over nine games.
The well-traveled Flint, Mich., native also represented Team USA at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, where he earned a silver medal as the backup to Ryan Miller.
Friday night’s contest at Minsk Arena was a tight, one-goal game until the 35th minute of the second period.
The U.S. exploded for three goals by Jacob Trouba, Johnny Gaudreau and Colin McDonald in a span of 2:43 late in the second period to take a commanding 4-0 lead and put the contest out of reach.
Mikhail Grabovski, a Belarusian forward and member of the Washington Capitals, had kind words for Thomas and his decision to come to Minsk for the tournament.
“I think it’s great that he’s come here at his age, it’s a great decision for him and for our country,” Grabovski said. “Little kids here can watch one of the best players in the NHL play. He played great today. We had so many chances and I think he’s one of the main parts of the U.S win."
Thomas admitted that his biggest challenge thus far in Belarus has been adapting to the seven-hour time difference from the U.S.
“The last couple days, the time change has been kicking my butt,” Thomas said. “I think I slept 1-2 and then 6:30 to 8 this morning. I’ve really been having trouble sleeping. The last few days have really been a blur.
By the look of Thomas’ play and the results on the score sheet, you would think that the veteran netminder had been very well rested entering the tournament opener.
Thomas and Team USA will have little chance to catch up on their sleep as game two is Saturday evening at Minsk Arena against Switzerland.
HELSINKI, Finland -- In anticipation of tomorrow’s quarterfinal against host Finland (11:30 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Network in U.S.), Team USA exuded calm and confidence while speaking to the media following Wednesday’s practice at Hartwall Arena.
It is evident that the youthful group, with an average age of just over 25, has relished its recent time spent together, bonding and quickly developing chemistry on the ice here in Finland.
“A lot of us have known each other for a long time, whether it’s playing with or against each other, so it’s been fun to get together in a tournament like this,” said U.S. captain Jack Johnson, who is playing in the world championship for the fifth time. “It kind of reminds me of the 2010 Olympic Team where no one expected us to do anything there, and everyone was willing to do whatever it took to win. We’re a real similar team.”
Defenseman Cam Fowler, who scored his first goal of the tournament on a slick give-and-go with Paul Stastny in last night’s 5-2 victory over Switzerland, echoed similar sentiments.
"It’s tough to kind of mold together when you only have a week of practice,” said Fowler. “I think at the world juniors and here, we’ve done a great job of doing that. I think it’s just the personalities of the guys we have and coming forward toward the same goal. Now we know what we have to do moving forward.”
Along with a third period tally by Chris Butler, Fowler and Butler became the 16th and 17th U.S. players to score a goal at the 2012 IIHF World Championship.
“Our game plan is really bringing everyone into the offense, whether it be different lines or the defense,” said Max Pacioretty, who with 12 points (2-10) in seven games leads Team USA. “We try to include all five players in the offensive zone and that’s how we put pucks in the net.”
“It’s tough to rely solely on one line or a couple of players,” said Johnson. “Fortunately for us, that’s not the case right now. Nobody cares who gets the credit and when you have a group of guys like this it’s a special thing.”
“Our defense has a lot to do with that, jumping in all the time and helping out us forwards,” said Stastny, about the team’s balanced scoring. “All the guys are clicking and we are successful when all four lines have good puck possession down low.”
Justin Faulk, the youngest player on the squad at 20-years old, has been an offensive force on the blue line, displaying poise and maturity. The young talent is tied for third among all defensemen in the tournament with seven points (4-3).
“Everyone is playing well together, finding each other and no one is being too selfish out there,” said the Carolina Hurricane defenseman. “Our defense has been chipping in and jumping into the rush and that’s been huge for us.”
Under Head Coach Scott Gordon, the U.S. concluded the preliminary round at 6-1, marking only the second time in history (1939), Team USA has won six of its first seven games in the world championship.
Starting in goal for the Finns Thursday will be Petri Vehanen. Dallas Star Kari Lehtonen suffered a lower body injury in the latter half of the third period in Sunday’s game against the U.S. and did not practice Wednesday.
“It doesn’t matter who they play in goal,” said Stastny, who had three goals and nine assists in the preliminary round. “Every goalie is good at this point. Plain and simple, you have to get in front of them, make them move and get second chances.”
With high expectations playing in front of the home crowd in what is a hockey-crazed nation, the pressure will surely be on the defending World Champion Finns come Thursday.
“Obviously, they’re probably feeling the pressure being their home tournament, but I don’t think its any real advantage in a one-game knockout where anything can happen,” said Johnson.
“We know we’re playing a completely different game and you can throw away the last one,” said Pacioretty. “They’re going to come out a lot hungrier and it’s going to be a battle. It will be a crazy barn to play in.”
For Team USA, expectations have grown as they’ve steadily progressed as a unit in Helsinki. The last American medal at a World Championship came in 2004, when they claimed bronze in Prague, Czech Republic, and it’s been 52 years since the U.S. has captured a world title.
“This team has the potential to do great in this tournament,” said Johnson. “We’re just here to have fun and we’re here to win it.”
“We know USA hasn’t done too well at the world championships and if we do well here the sport will continue growing in the U.S.,” added Stastny. “We’re here for a reason – we’re here to win. Tomorrow is such a big game for us and that’s why we’re so excited.”