LAKE PLACID, NEW YORK: Despite giving up three powerplay goals to a very talented and resilient Japanese squad, team USA prevailed 4-3 in overtime after forward Samuel Ruffin controlled a cross-slot pass from teammate Jack Jaunich before burying a wrist shot top, glove side shelf past Japanese goaltender Eiki Sato less than 90 seconds into the extra frame.
Forward Luke Aquaro also recorded an assist on the winning goal and finished the night as the USA’s highest scorer with a goal and an assist and also recorded seven shots on goal.
Team USA controlled the majority of the game, dominating in the faceoff circle, controlling possession, spending a lot of time in the offensive zone, moving the puck efficiently to create scoring chances from dangerous areas, and outshooting Japan 49-23. However, Japan played hard the entire game on both sides of the puck proved to be a tough test for the USA.
However, Sato was incredible between the posts, making a whopping 46 saves on 49 shots faced including several highlight reel stops at a handful of key moments in the game like at the end of the first period and in the second period to keep the USA’s lead at only one goal and late in the third period to keep the game tied 3-3 despite a barrage of USA scoring chances.
Japan’s excellent man advantage – which has been reliable all tournament long – kept them alive in this game by scoring three powerplay goals to force overtime. Japan moved the puck extremely well on the powerplay to create open shooting lanes and was able to consistently get pucks to the net to create scoring chances off rebounds.
A quick start for the US
The United States got off to a blazing start, scoring less than two minutes in for an early lead and took all the momentum. The United States kept pressing offensively, entering the attacking zone with ease and moving the puck to create scoring chances. However, Japan defended incredibly well, blocking shots, taking away passing lanes with their sticks, creating turnovers and attacking in transition, and forcing the USA to the outside, preventing them from creating high-percentage scoring chances from the slot.
Midway through the first period, Jaunich took a high-sticking penalty which sent Japan to the man advantage. On the ensuing powerplay, Japan was unable to set up an attack in the offensive zone, and a heads-up defensive play by Matthew Hanewall created a turnover; and with an accurate stretch pass, he sprung Aquaro on a break who made no mistake to double the USA’s advantage.
Japan’s effective powerplay
A 5-4 powerplay became a two-man advantage when Jaden Shields was booked for high-sticking and Japan capitalized by scoring two powerplay goals in less than 25 seconds thanks to their excellent speed, hockey IQ, and puck movement.
In a blink of an eye, it was a 2-2 hockey game and Japan regained all the momentum. Forward Teruto Nakajima recorded an assist on both powerplay goals, and defenseman Shunta Kimura scored the first powerplay goal and provided a crisp cross-ice pass to defenseman Manato Sasanaka who scored the second powerplay goal. Japan’s ability to get their defenseman involved in the offence, especially on the man advantage, and to get all four lines involved was crucial to their offensive success against the USA and throughout the entire tournament.
A wild, five-goal first period was capped off after captain and defenseman Brandon Mark scored off a turnover with 14 seconds remaining to give the USA a 3-2 lead.
Japan’s strong defence keeps them alive:
Both teams created scoring chances in the second period, however, Japan spent the majority of the frame defending, and the USA attacked relentlessly getting pucks to the net. The USA outshot Japan 20-8 in the second frame, but Japan’s defence held their ground and Sato stood on his head in net to keep it a 3-2 game.
The USA’s relentless attack continued into the third period; they recorded nine shots on target before Japan recorded one and spent a ton of time in the attacking zone, but Japan’s defence was physical and limited the severity of several of their opponents’ scoring chances.
When Japan was sent to the powerplay again 8:30 minutes into the third period, the tides shifted. Japan spent nearly the entire powerplay in the attacking zone, getting pucks to the net from all angles and moving the puck rapidly all over the attacking zone to tire out USA’s defence and lead to scoring chances. Nakajima recorded his third assist of the game after finding forward Ryosuke Miura open in the slot. Miura tucked it in short side past USA goaltender Ryan Kenny, who made 20 saves on 23 shots and was tested all game by a strong Japan offence.
The USA dominated the last 10 minutes of the game, trying to find a winner, living in the offensive zone, and outshooting Japan 9-2, but Japan’s relentless and physical defence dealt with every challenge their opponent threw at them and it was 3-3 heading into overtime.
The extra frame didn’t last very long. The USA maintained possession for the entire period and just under 1:15 minutes in, Ruffin’s strong wrist shot from the slot beat Sato on his high-glove side to secure a place in the gold medal game.
The USA’s opponent in the gold medal game will be the winner of the other semifinal between Canada and Kazakhstan.
Regardless of the outcome, it will be an exciting gold-medal game between two of the best teams in the tournament. Canada topped Group A with a perfect 5-0-0 record with a +32 goal difference. The USA topped Group B with a 4-1-0 record with a goal difference of +34, their only loss coming to Slovakia. Kazakhstan finished second in Group B with a 4-1-0 record and a goal difference of +27, their only loss came against the USA.