This wasn't the star-studded US line-up we've seen in some other tournaments. No Chris Kreider, no Kyle Palmieri, no Emerson Etem. If you wanna go further back, there weren't too many Zach Parises or Phil Kessels on the list either.
Even names that could have carried the torch offensively, like Alex Galchenyuk, ultimately weren't solely responsible for the United States' third gold medal at the World Junior Championships.
That's not how Phil Housley ran this team.
USA Hockey put together a roster that would have made Herb Brooks proud.
No, not a collection of no-names who shocked the world and stole a medal (maybe shocked Don Cherry, but not the world.) But this was a team that was built on defense, goaltending, and some opportunistic scoring. And they came up aces on all three.
John Gibson's selection as the tournament's top goaltender and MVP was a foregone conclusion. With a 1.36 GAA (US record) and 95.4 save percentage (3rd best all-time) in six games, Gibson put forth the greatest performance of any US goaltender ever at the World Juniors. Beyond the stats, Gibson made the big save when it was needed, with an exclamation point in the third period against Sweden when he stretched to kick out Victor Arvidsson's wrap-around and then stoned first-rounder Filip Forsberg's golden opportunity in the slot off of a Shayne Gostisbehere turnover.
Entering this tournament, we thought that the US could only succeed in low-scoring, one-goal games. Gibson held to that plan, holding opponents to two goals or less in six of seven games.
Defense was a strength for the US coming into the tournament, but this team was dominant. Gibson was there to clean up the messes, but the penalty killing was outstanding at 89%, a full nine percentage points better than second-best Sweden. The backcheck was tenacious, the forwards collapsed to the house to win the battles in the slot, and in particular, Jacob Trouba may have proved to the Winnipeg Jets that he'll be NHL-ready for September.
Trouba was named the tournament's best defenseman and it showed on both ends. His four goals and nine points in seven games led all defensemen, while his usual physical brand accompanied a plus-2 rating. Seth Jones, entering the tournament as a possible first-overall pick in the upcoming draft, showed his growing pains early but progressed throughout the tournament and in the end finished with seven points and a plus-8. In the seven games, Jones and Trouba launched a combined 40 shots for a blueline that surprised us with their offense and were a major reason the US had an opportunity to play for Gold.
If this US team was anything, it was opportunistic. They jumped on teams like Germany and, perhaps surprisingly, Slovakia. But after one-goal losses to Russia and Canada, it was obvious the US would need to make better use of their powerplays and odd-man rushes to spread the gap against a tough Canadian team. With help from a Canadian defense that frankly looked lost for stretches, Johnny Gaudreau came to life and changed the tournament.
Gaudreau had seven goals in three games for the US after a quiet start, but most meaningful were his two against the Canadians in the semi-final, one a toe-drag wrister from the top of the left circle and the second a breakaway dagger to put the Canadians away for good. The 5'9" Calgary Flames prospect used the combination of speed and hands that got him drafted and became the Americans' most reliable scorer in the tournament. He made up for the offense lacking through most of the tournament from another small-framed forward, Rocco Grimaldi.
Grimaldi was expected to be a leader for this team offensively but entered the final with only two assists through six games. It wasn't for lack of trying, as Grimaldi was constantly involved, winning battles in the corners but never getting the right bounce, evidenced by his first period opportunity that bounced out after ringing both posts. In the second, when it mattered most with the Americans trailing 1-0, Grimaldi answered with two goals about three minutes apart.
That was how this team would win. Every line would contribute, and every day it would be someone new. Sure Gaudreau's three-game stretch stood out from other forwards, but Trouba was arguably one of the most effective skaters of the tournament in the preliminary round and the US may not even be talking Gold if not for Jake McCabe seizing the semi-final in the first period.
Phil Housley understood which buttons to push, always with his finger on the pulse of this team, and he made the right adjustments after the close losses to Canada and Russia might have indicated that something was missing from this roster. Housley knew that he not only had the personnel to score just enough, but also the kind of kids willing to play the proper roles to win gold.
JT Miller, the only professional on the roster (AHL, Connecticut Whale), put up nine points in the tournament, but was overwhelmingly effective in the gold medal game defensively. Ryan Hartman, a 2013 draft-eligible forward averaging nearly a point a game in Plymouth (OHL), helped his stock during the tournament using his scrappy style coupled with his nose for the net. But Hartman spent the majority of the tournament on what became affectionately known as the Grind Line with Blake Bardreau and Blake Pietila. With an opportunity to boost his draft stock, Hartman accepted a primarily defensive role and still managed to do so. There were no prima donnas on this team.
And perhaps no coincidence, with the net empty and 1:30 to go in a one-goal game, who did Housley have on the ice? Hartman and Jones.
This was a team of trust, that was as calm and collected as Housley's demeanor, whether they were up by nine, or down by one. It was a team that knew it couldn't get into a run-and-gun shoot-out with the Canadians and the Swedes and knew that they didn't have to. They knew there jobs, they did them incredibly well, and whoever had the hot stick that day would lead the way.
USA Hockey has again won gold, and has established itself more firmly than ever as a top dog on the international hockey stage.
And they made it look easier than ever.