USA To Play Slovakia For First Place In Group Stage

USA and Slovakia will play with first place in Group B on the line on New Year’s Eve. Chris Peters breaks down the most-anticipated matchup of the prelims.

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – New Year’s Eve is traditionally one of the biggest nights of the year at the World Junior Championship. Big rivalries, important games, and memorable moments have been the norm and while Canada won’t have their traditional big NYE game, other teams will.

That’s especially true of Team USA, which will play Slovakia in a critical seeding matchup in both teams’ final game of the preliminary round.

Entering Sunday’s game, Slovakia has a one-point advantage over Team USA in the Group B standings, having collected nine of nine points with three regulation wins. The USA has eight points thanks to two regulation wins and a shootout win over Czechia. 

Whoever gets first place in the group will play the fourth-place team in Group A, which at this point looks like it could be Finland who was upset by Germany earlier in the preliminary round.

While Finland would be a fairly tough matchup for a 1v4 crossover game, I don’t think either team has plans to dodge them. With the tournament being re-seeded after the quarterfinal, every point matters. 

So what should we be looking for in the USA’s big preliminary-round finale against Slovakia? Let’s take a look…

When is the USA vs. Slovakia?

USA and Slovakia meet on Sunday, Dec. 31 at 6 a.m. ET at the Frölundaborg in Gothenburg, Sweden

How To Watch USA vs. Slovakia 

USA and Slovakia will air on NHL Network in the U.S. and TSN in Canada. The game will also stream in Canada on TSN’s digital platforms. 

We Still Haven’t Seen USA’s Top Level

Through three games, Team USA hasn’t necessarily had its best showing yet. That’s even including the 11-goal barrage against Switzerland. There have been things you can pick apart about their game in each of their three contests, particularly when it comes to puck management.

They had to battle in a tight win over Czechia and had to lean more heavily on its top-pairing defensemen. The Americans will need their depth even more to beat a team like Slovakia.

We won’t know until the lineups are released whether Trey Augustine (DET) and Seamus Casey (NJD) are back from missing the Czech game due to illness. Also, there has been some bug going through the U.S. team dating back to when they arrived in Sweden. We’ll have to see if any other players are impacted and if illness has contributed to this team playing below its expected standards.

If the USA gets fired on all cylinders, they may be the team to beat, but we still haven’t seen that team yet. 

When the USA is playing smart with the puck, they’ve looked really good. When they try to do too much with it or don’t handle pressure appropriately, it has bitten them in their zone. 

On paper, the USA has more talent per player than Slovakia does, but the gap is not as significant as it had been against other teams. The depth and experience the Slovaks bring to the table can level the playing field, making this game feel a lot more like a playoff game than a seeding contest. First place is very much up for grabs.

Blackhawks Goalie Prospect Adam Gajan Has Been Dialed In

A big reason Slovakia is on even footing with the U.S. has got to be the performance thus far of Chicago Blackhawks goalie prospect Adam Gajan. The Green Bay Gamblers’ regular netminder had been among the class goalies in the tournament so far, having started all three games. 

Gajan, who had his breakout moment last season at the World Juniors in a win against Team USA, carries a .934 save percentage into the preliminary-round finale. The only time he’s looked average was at the end of the game against Norway where Slovakia was so far ahead, they took their foot off the gas and allowed Grade-A scoring chances against their otherwise flawless goalie.

Gajan had some of his best moments in a tense third period against Switzerland, where he had to hold onto a narrow lead for his team and made a couple of big stops on great scoring chances.

He was the goalie of the tournament last year and while competition is steep this time around, he’s played like he plans on winning the award back-to-back.

The Minnesota Duluth commit could be the X-factor for his team to make this next point a reality.

Slovakia Is A Legitimate Medal Threat

After nearly beating Canada in the quarterfinal last year, Slovakia looks like it has leveled up this year. 

With 11 returnees among their forwards alone, Slovakia has been one of the best teams in the tournament. They’ve won most of their games comfortably and have gotten contributions up and down their lineup. With first-round draft picks like Filip Mesar (MTL), Dalibor Dvorsky (STL), and Samuel Honzek (CGY), the talent gap between them and the perceived “Big 4” teams of USA, Canada, Sweden, and Finland, hasn’t been this slim in decades.

Gajan is a difference-maker in the net. Michigan State’s Maxim Strbak (BUF) has been one of the tournament’s best defensemen to date. Meanwhile, Slovakia has a forward group that has produced the second most goals-for through three games in the tournament with 17.

Slovakia also has the tournament’s best power play to date, humming at a success rate of 46.15%. They’re killing nearly 93% of their penalties, too, which is good considering they’ve taken 17 minors through three games.

All of the tools that a team needs to compete for gold in this tournament, with perhaps the exception of depth on the blue line, Slovakia has. They’re a legitimate threat in this tournament and should be treated as such.

World Juniors Stream In 2023- 2024

The World Juniors Championships will air on the NHL Network in the U.S.. Some games will be available on ESPN+.

World Juniors Hockey On TSN In Canada

In Canada, the event will be televised on TSN and streamed on TSN+.

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