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At World Juniors, Team USA’s defense is high risk, high reward

Dan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire

This iteration of Team USA is as deep as we’ve seen in terms of forwards and goalies. That said, in the World Juniors Championship, this is a team that is going to live and die by its defense.

The USA’s defense was actively engaged in the first game against Latvia. Perhaps a bit too engaged, as their stepping up into the play in an attempt to create offense lead to chances for Latvia more often than they would’ve liked. While having the defense involved in the offensive attack is ideal, it has to be done in a smart manner.

There’s no question about it — this defensive corps wasn’t constructed to be a stay-at-home group dedicated to out-defending its opponents. Rather, USA Hockey seemed to wholeheartedly subscribe to the mobile defensive unit approach, wanting their defense to always be engaged in the play and always be driving the puck back toward the other team’s net.

This has the potential to be high-reward, but is also fairly high-risk.

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 26: during the World junior Hockey Championships on December 26, 2016, at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Dan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire)

TORONTO, ON – DECEMBER 26: Team Latvia gets a grade-A scoring chance against Team USA. (Photo by Dan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire)

Casey Fitzgerald of Boston College got burned on two separate odd-man rushes in the game against Latvia, a microcosm of how the entire game went for the American defense. Though they only gave up one goal, they seemed scrambly at times, pinching when they shouldn’t be, and not always making the smart decision.

It’s important to find the balance. Puck-moving defensemen have to learn how to use their defensive awareness to discern when it’s the right time to jump into the play.

While most of Team USA’s defensemen have fairly high-level hockey sense, this is a short tournament and it can take a while for players to trust their instincts in a new setting, both in terms of reading teammates and reading opponents.

When addressing the team before the game against Slovakia, head coach Bob Motzko told his team to have “nothing cute in our game.” Despite a somewhat tumultuous first period, it appears they listened.

The USA’s game against Slovakia did not look nearly as chaotic as the game against Latvia, and at the end of the game, shots on goal were 50-20 in favor of the USA. In the second period alone, the USA outshot their opponents 19-2 — a marked improvement from the first period, in which they gave up 12 shots.

This stark difference was likely due to the USA taking no penalties in the second, as well as receiving multiple power plays. The defense also showed improvement in small ways, including a sliding defensive play by Fitzgerald to block a potential Slovakian scoring chance.

Jack Ahcan of St. Cloud State University has been the USA’s second best defenseman thus far in the tournament, after alternate captain Charlie McAvoy. He’s proven versatile, able to make both mobile and physical plays, and he’s looked good with both Casey Fitzgerald (whom he seemed to be deployed with more often in the offensive zone, at least against Slovakia) and Joe Cecconi.

It’s tempting to want to see Ahcan away from the third pairing, to see what he can do when given a more prominent role. However, Motzko’s approach — for the most part — to his defensive pairings so far has been that of stability. McAvoy plays with Jones, Lindgren plays with Fox, and Ahcan plays with Cecconi and, sometimes, Fitzgerald.

In such a short tournament, with players learning their roles and learning how their defensive partners do things, stability might be the best gift he can give them. This team, as a unit, has only played two games together, and they have plenty of room to grow.

Russia will be this team’s first major test. If the American defense can handle Russia, they’ll go into Saturday’s game against Canada with their confidence high.

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