Defensemen set gold standard for United States
Saturday, 01.05.2013 / 2:48 PM
Going back to the summer evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., U.S. coach Phil Housley knew a key to his team's success would be the offensive contributions from his defensemen.
"Personally, I think one of our strengths is our back side," Housley told NHL.com in August. "We have a lot of puck-moving defensemen that can skate and have a good head on their shoulders. … I want our defense to jump up in the play, I want that second wave coming in and hopefully beating the [opposing] forward up the ice and creating an odd-number situation."
Housley -- who certainly knows all about offensively talented defensemen -- was proven right by his seven-man unit over the course of the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship.
The seven American blueliners starred at both ends of the ice and were a major reason the United States won its third WJC gold medal, defeating Sweden 3-1 on Saturday in Ufa, Russia.
"We had seven guys who knew what our jobs were," Seth Jones told NHL.com. "We all blocked shots, we all contributed at both ends of the ice. I've never been part of a group like that."
Led by Jacob Trouba and Jones, the seven U.S. defensemen combined for 10 goals -- double the next best teams -- and 29 points. All seven had at least one point, and five of the seven had at least one goal. Trouba (nine points), Jones (seven) and captain Jake McCabe (six) were the three highest-scoring defensemen in the tournament. Trouba led all blueliners with six goals, and Jones led with six assists.
But that was far from their only contribution. All seven were even or plus players, topped by McCabe's plus-9, the second-best rating in the tournament, and Jones' plus-8, which was third (Finland defenseman Ville Pokka was plus-10).
They also were fearless blocking shots and clogging shooting and passing lanes. No better example of that came with 5:58 left in the third period Saturday -- clinging to a one-goal lead, Connor Murphy slid to block a Sebastian Collberg shot when the Swedish sniper was alone in the slot. Later, it was Trouba using a smart stick to stop another Swedish scoring chance.
"For me it was defense first and second, too, and then a little offense," Murphy, who finished with one assist and a plus-5 rating, told NHL.com. "It was be responsible defensively and be the guy that was trusted and be reliable against the top players. Guys put up some good numbers from the back end and we couldn't be happier with how it turned out."
And the group -- which included Shayne Gostisbehere, Mike Reilly and Patrick Sieloff -- played a huge role in the Americans' tournament-best 89.3-percent penalty-killing success rate (25 kills on 28 shorthanded situations).
"It was about working as a unit and making sure we knew when to pressure," said Murphy, who played a large number of minutes on the penalty kill. "We knew how to pressure teams and we knew we could make mistakes because John [Gibson, goalie] would bail us out. … Gibby gave us that confidence to flourish even more."
Their confidence also came from Housley, the U.S. Hall of Fame defenseman who played 21 NHL seasons ranks fourth all-time among League defensemen -- No. 1 among American-born blueliners -- with 1,232 points.
"The biggest part was having a coach like Phil Housley back there for us," Murphy said. "He was like that as a player and he would teach us different things that would help us get into the play. That was huge. It made some of our defensemen comfortable. He gave us the green light to make plays offensively and it worked out."