International Ice Hockey Federation

USA bringing bronze home

Hellebuyck again sparkles in net

Published 17.05.2015 22:13 GMT+2 | Author John Sanful
USA bringing bronze home
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 17: USA's Matt Hendricks #23 celebrates with the bronze medal trophy after a 3-0 win over Team Czech Republic during bronze medal game action at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Team USA was able to shake off its semi-final loss to easily handle the Czech Republic 3-0 in front of the home crowd at O2 Arena.

First period goals by Nick Bonino and Trevor Lewis powered the United States to a medal.

Winning the bronze, the Americans medalled for the second time in three years in the World Championship. That has not happened since 1952. During that stretch of three years, the United States earned silver in 1950 and 1952. They finished sixth in 1951. 

From recent history, this was expected to be a closely contested game. Seven of the last nine games between these two teams have been decided by a single goal. Coming in, Team USA was 3-3 in bronze medal play, including a 1-0 win over Slovakia at the 2004 IIHF World Championship also here in Prague.

Last year, the Czechs eliminated the Americans in the quarter-final with a 4-3 decision at Minsk Arena.

"I’m very proud," said captain Matt Hendricks. "We had a quick turn-around. Obviously we wanted to be playing for the gold medal. But we were able to rally the troops and come out tonight and play a very, very strong game, backed by a great performance from our goaltender."

The game featured a head-to-head matchup between Winnipeg Jets goaltenders of the present and maybe the future. Ondrej Pavelec was coming off an admirable effort against Canada in a game where several important saves kept it close. Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck rebounded nicely from the 4-0 loss to Russia last night. Hellebuyck leads all goaltenders in the tournament in both goals against average and saves percentage. Big stops in front today showed why he’s been tough to beat.

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"Connor [Hellebuyck]’s our best player night in, night out," said Lewis. "He was there to stop pucks for us, and clear rebounds. We knew if we had a breakdown he was going to be there, he was a calming presence for us. I can’t say enough about him."

The Czechs would start the game with the better chances over the first four minutes. Jaromir Jagr had an early shot that was deflected and dribbled to the net where Tomas Plekanec was unable to get to it. Jan Kolar got a good look at the net before firing a slapshot that was saved by Hellebuyck.

The United States would get its first shot on goal close to the four minute mark of the period when Pavelec saved Jack Eichel's wrister. From there, the Americans would regain their form. 

Team USA scored at 7:25 when Nick Bonino popped one in. The Americans spread the Czech defence, leaving some gaps for their forwards to fill. Charlie Coyle sent a pass to Brock Nelson who had two shots on Pavelec. There was a bounce that worked to Bonino’s favour and he was in excellent position to score.

A crucial second goal was added in the period when Jack Eichel sent a pass through three defenders to Trevor Lewis in front for the goal. If there’s anything to be gleaned from Eichel’s play in this tournament is that he’s an NHL-calibre player whose vision and creativity are among his prime assets.

It is remarkable to think that just last year around this time, Eichel was leading Team USA at the U18s in Finland. Now, he’s getting the job done at the senior level of international hockey.

Shots were tied 11-11 in the period but the big difference was that the Americans capitalized on two chances, something that they were not able to do in the semi-final.

"It was a pretty back and forth game," said Justin Faulk, who was also on the 2013 bronze winning team in Stockholm. "We like to play down low with the puck in the offensive zone, and they use their speed to their advantage. Two different styles of play out there and we both had our chances. We were lucky to capitalize when we got ours."

A slashing penalty to close the first period gave the Czechs 1:58 of power play time to start the second.

The Czechs began to surge getting some quality chances in the period. Over a five-minute stretch, the Czechs would produce scoring opportunities on a particular type of play with a forward streaking down the wing and seeking a pass or deflection in front. 

Petr Koukal first tried it sending a pass to a streaking Dominik Simon. It was Simon’s first shift of the game. Not long after Michal Vondrka tried the same thing with Kolar who left the point and snuck in on the right side of the USA net. His shot ricocheted off the crossbar and it wasn’t immediately clear if the puck went in and out of the net. While waiting for the whistle to review the play, the Czechs continued the attack, getting some additional chances. After the first whistle, the play was reviewed and definitively ruled no goal. Jagr would try the same down the wing play as Jakub Klepis deflected it in front. 

Another test would be put to the Americans when Nick Bonino was sent off for four minute minor penalty for high sticking. Bonino and Koukal were battling for the puck when an errant stick struck Koukal in the nose and drew blood. 

This would give the Czech power play, among the best in the tournament, the opportunity to get their side back in the game. 

The Czechs moved the puck and kept the play in the American zone throughout the penalty but Hellebuyck would come up big, especially on two shots by Vladimir Sobotka. The Americans were able to weather the storm in what was the turning point of the game.

Then with 49.8 seconds left in the second period Coyle expanded the lead off a feed from Bonino. It was Coyle’s third goal in five games since joining Team USA after the Minnesota Wild were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Czechs fought bravely to get on the scoreboard in the third but could not cash in. Still, their fans applauded their efforts in the last minute of the game; a tribute to their national team.

With the loss, the Czech Republic closed out the tournament not scoring over its final two games. The last time the Czechs scored was in the third period of their quarter-final game against Finland. 

After the game Jagr once again announced his retirement from international hockey. In playing for the Czech Republic in this tournament, Jagr gave the home fans a last look at one of the best to play the sport.

"I’m glad I did it, even if we didn’t win a medal," Jagr said of coming back to play in the 2015 World Championship. "It was something special."

What is impressive about USA's run here in the Czech Republic and over the past three years in medalling twice, is that they do it with a mix of youth and a few NHL veterans who are character players possessing the right type of leadership skills for such a short but demanding tournament.

"It's weird. I feel pretty young, but I'm one of the older guys here," said Jake Gardiner. "There's a lot of young talent in USA Hockey, so it's good for the future."

For the Americans this effort further raises the bar for some of returning players who've been in this situation before in playing for bronze. The United States has made major strides at the senior men's World Championship. Still, there is hope that these recent accomplishments will lead to a bigger breakthrough down the line.

"Any time you get a chance of a medal it’s quite an accomplishment but I hope this is the last bronze medal game I have to play in," Faulk said. "I think I’ve played in four and that means I’ve lost in the semi-finals four times. It’s good, we’re happy with it and hopefully we can keep this bit of a run going at USA Hockey."