Phil Housley wasn't disappointed with what he had seen from his team the past two games, but after his United States team scored just one goal in each, he knew some changes were needed.
So, he made them.
Those changes paid off, as the United States, with its medal hopes on the line, re-discovered its offense with a 9-3 win against Slovakia in its preliminary round finale Monday.
The victory clinched third place in Group B for the Americans, and sent them into a quarterfinal match Wednesday against the Czech Republic, who finished second in Group A.
"We talked about that after the Canada game," Housley told NHL.com. "Destiny was in our hands and [Monday]'s meeting was more … we came into the tournament knowing we had to win two games in the preliminary round. If you told us we had to win our last preliminary game against Slovakia to get to the medal round, we would have taken that situation. I thought we played two great games against two great opponents [losses to Russia and Canada], and it just seemed [Monday] night it broke open."
Vincent Trocheck and John Gaudreau had two goals and an assist each to lead the U.S. attack. Jimmy Vesey, given a larger role after playing limited minutes as the 13th forward in the first three games, had three assists.
Vesey and Trocheck were the two key changes for the Americans. Vesey replaced Rocco Grimaldi on the top line with J.T. Miller and Gaudreau, while Trocheck was inserted on the first power-unit with Miller and Gaudreau, and had a goal and an assist with the man advantage.
"I thought our power play was OK but it needed to get better," Housley said. "Trocheck picked up some opportunities in our exhibition games. We made the change and it paid off. As far as the line changes, we weren't getting scoring from our forwards and it was a change trying to find it. It worked out [Monday] night and we got some good power-play goals, some good chemistry within our power play and our lines seemed to be clicking. … You play a hunch once in a while and it worked out."
Cole Bardreau, Jake McCabe, Mike Reilly, Jacob Trouba and Alex Galchenyuk also had goals for the U.S., and goalie John Gibson made 26 saves.
After scoring eight goals against Germany in their tournament opener, the U.S. had been held to one goal in each of their past two, back-to-back 2-1 losses to Russia and Canada.
"We had been lacking the offense the last couple games," Trocheck told NHL.com. "To score [nine] goals gives the team a confidence boost. It gives us that confidence going into the medal round that anytime that we go down, we can score."
The U.S. penalty killers also played a significant role in the victory, killing off six of seven Slovakia power plays. They allowed just one goal on a five-minute slashing major and game misconduct assessed to defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere late in the first period, and also killed off two extended 5-on-3 Slovakia power plays in the second period.
The Americans have killed off 16 of 18 shorthanded situations in the tournament. Housley said he's happy with the play of the penalty killers, but would like to see less of a need to use them.
"You kick the can so many times, eventually it's going to fall over," Housley told NHL.com. "Our penalty killing has done a tremendous job, and I think the reason for that is [goaltender] John Gibson. He's made some outstanding saves for us. He's given us a chance to win the games we lost and our penalty killers are paying a price, they're blocking shots and they're making good reads."
The victory is a bit of redemption for the United States, which lost its final three games of the preliminary round at last year's tournament and was sent to the relegation pool and a seventh-place finish.
"We were embarrassed last year," Gibson, one of three players who returned from last year's tournament team, told NHL.com. "We wanted to come back better this year."
Matus Matis had a pair of goals for Slovakia, and Richard Mraz also had a goal.
The Americans started the scoring early, getting five goals in the first period, starting with Bardreau's breakaway goal 4:05 into the game. It was the first goal by a U.S. forward since Miller scored in the third period of the team's first game, a span of 136:29 of game action.
However, the lead held for just 14 seconds as Matis scored on a breakaway of his own after a U.S. turnover.
McCabe put the United States ahead for good at 5:10 of the period when he got down into the slot, took a nice pass from Vesey and scored off a backhander. Gaudreau built on the lead when he scored off the rebound of a Vesey shot at 9:00.
After the Gaudreau goal, Slovakia tried to change things up by replacing goalie Adam Nagy with Patrik Romancik, but it didn't help, as the Americans made it 4-1 when Reilly snuck in from the point to tip a Vesey shot past Romancik at 11:46.
Trouba, who had scored the only goals by the U.S. in the past two games, made it 5-1 when he scored at 13:50. It was Trouba's fourth goal, and third straight game with a power-play goal.
The period ended with Mraz scoring on the Gostisbehere major, but it was the only goal the United States allowed on the penalty, which continued for the first 1:50 of the second period.
The Americans took advantage of its own man-advantage chances in the second. With Matis in the box, Gaudreau scored off the rush to at 4:55 to make it 6-2, and with Marko Dano in the box for roughing, Trocheck got open in the slot and scored off a pass from behind the net by Gaudreau to make it 7-2.
"We just gave him a shot on the power play and it seemed to work out for him and with Gaudreau and Miller," Housley said. "It was nice to see the chemistry and him being able to control the puck on the half wall. And his penalty-killing skills, you've seen in the games he's been outstanding. He's not afraid to put a body in front of the puck and block shots. He's gaining confidence as the tournament continues."
Trocheck leads the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League with 24 goals and 50 points, and also has a team-best plus-18 rating, showing his skill at both ends of the ice is no surprise.
"[Getting his first goal] got me confidence," Trocheck said. "On the penalty kill I strive to be one of the better penalty killers in the tournament and take great pride in the penalty kill. To contribute at both ends feels good."
After killing a two-man Slovakia advantage, Trocheck scored again to make it 8-2. The Florida Panthers prospect won a faceoff in the Slovakia end, went to the net, and was in the right place to score off a feed from Tyler Biggs.
Matis' second goal of the game made it 8-3 in the third, but Galchenyuk answered with a power-play goal at 16:16 to cap the scoring.
Now the focus for the Americans shifts to a quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic.
"It's a big sigh of relief after today knowing we're moving on," Trocheck said. "To go into the medal round and keep going, it's a clean slate. We're not worried about the .500 record in the first few games. It's just a new slate and we're going to start 1-0 hopefully against the Czechs in a couple days."
CANADA 4 - RUSSIA 1
Canada clinched the top spot in Group B -- and a bye into the semifinals -- with a 4-1 defeat of Russia in the final game of the preliminary round on Monday.
Jonathan Huberdeau closed the scoring with an empty-net goal with 27.3 seconds left. Dougie Hamilton, Mark Scheifele and Jonathan Drouin, the player of the game for Canada, also scored.
Nikita Kucherov scored the lone goal for Russia. They had a chance for another when Vladimir Tkachev was pulled down by Canada defenseman Ryan Murphy and awarded a penalty shot with 19 seconds left in the third, but goalie Malcolm Subban got his right pad on Tkachev's attempt to push it wide.
Russia, which finished second in Group B, next faces Switzerland in the quarterfinals Wednesday. Canada will face the winner of the United States-Czech Republic quarterfinal game in the semifinals on Thursday.
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