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  Sunday, October 26, 2014
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xtra xtra!
U.S. Favored in Canada
By Paul Noonan

     Last year, the U.S. World Junior Hockey Under 20 team looked like it had a chance to repeat as gold medalists in the World Junior Hockey Championship.  The games were played in the U.S., and for some of those on the team, in the same rink(s) they play at on a consistent basis.  Unfortunately, Canada rained on the U.S.’s parade, with a little help from a strong lineup, a lineup that produced a number of NHLers this year, including phenom Sidney Crosby.   This year, the U.S. will be looking to return the favor.  Heading to Canadian country, the U.S. hopes it can ride on the coattails of their own phenom, Phil Kessel, and bring back another gold medal, along with more hope for the future of USA Hockey.

     Phil Kessel is about to get a firsthand look at what it was like to be Sidney Crosby in 2005.  After an impressive performance in last year’s tournament, Kessel quickly moved into #1 pick status, as well as acquiring the ‘next-great-American-hockey player’ title.  Behind Kessel, the U.S. roster boasts a number of quality names and players, although the one thing they lack is the experience last year’s team had.  With only five returning players (Kessel, D Brian Lee, F Robbie Schremp and MA’s own F Chris Bourque and G Corey Schneider), the U.S. team will have to overcome their inexperience if they hope to win.   Luckily, the team has enough talent that a strong start in the tournament could be a big boost to get the team rolling.  The team will ice many first-round picks, the highest being a number 2 pick (Bobby Ryan).  However, there are many others who will garner much attention from their pro teams.  F Blake Wheeler, D Jack Johnson, Lee Schremp, F TJ Oshie, D Matt Niskanen, G Corey Schneider and F Jack Skille were all first round picks as well.   Most of them were taken high in the round. 

The oldest player, Bourque, was a high second round pick and has the most experience of any of the players.  Bourque has been playing in the AHL this year, and doing well.  He will likely be the leader and a big producer on the team. 

     How this team will do depends on two key elements:  how well the young guys handle the pressure and how well the goalies perform.  For many of the young guys, they’ve already been dealing with pressure.  Many of the players have been key contributors on their respective teams.     However, for a few unknowns, especially those who are entering their draft year, this is a big tournament.  A lot of scouts place a lot of weight on how prospects perform in this tournament because of the competition and the stage.  Youngsters such as Ds Erik Johnson and Mark Mitera as well as F Peter Mueller will be given a chance to prove their worth.  Some expect that Johnson will see some good ice time, and Mitera and Mueller will have a chance to earn some as well. 

As for goaltending, the only downside to an otherwise remarkable 2005 for Corey Schneider was his performance in this tournament last year.  While he wasn’t the #1, Schneider looked sluggish in his minimal time in the tournament.  However, other than that tournament, Schneider has been dominant.  The tournament will also take place in what may be Schneider’s future home (he was drafted by Vancouver, where the tournament takes place), adding to the pressure.  Behind him, the U.S. has a bigger question mark.  Jeff Frazee was a strong force for the U.S. Under- 18 team last year, backstopping them enroute to a gold medal, but he has had a fairly disappointing first half at the University of Minnesota.  The plus is that Frazee is used to the world tournament scene: the minus is no one knows whether the gold-medal- caliber Frazee will show up, or the college freshman who has been chased from a few games. 

     Nevertheless, the U.S. team is favored, and the similarities to last years championship team are striking.  A new #1 goalie, a superstar in the making, an experienced pro, some hard hitting defensemen, a lot of new faces, but some key returning ones, the list goes on.  With the Olympic team less likely to pull off a gold medal, the Under- 20 team looks like it may be the U.S.’s chance at the gold medal this year.  Most of all, this tournament brings back a little bit of the old U.S./Canadian rivalry.  Last year the Canadians came into our territory (no pun intended) and went back to theirs, gold medal in hand.  Now is as good a time as any for us to return the favor.         



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Massachusetts' USA Junior Hockey Team member Chris Bourque.
Massachusetts' USA Junior Hockey Team member Chris Bourque.