Yesterday evening the Under-20 Team USA, who are as of now about four hours into their flight to the Czech Republic for the World Junior Championships, took on the Western Michigan Broncos in an exhibition game at Lawson Arena. I worked the game, but as we had few students in attendance thanks to Christmas, I basically got to enjoy it, and the following autograph session, as a spectator.
While we expected a blowout, the Broncos (who are currently beating only Lake Superior State in the CCHA and have only 4 points on the season...good job guys) put up a strong fight and only ended up losing 4-2.
Team USA looked great together - their warmups especially had a very "Miracle" feel to them (of course the uniforms helped, but the sheer skill and the synchronized drills were everything you'd expect of this sort of team), and were very impressive, though the Broncos were no slouches either. Team USA, despite only played with its final roster set since December 4th, looked good together, although they definitely looked stronger when they were running set plays - at times it seemed like they weren't quite used to each other enough to know just where to expect linemates to be, which got them into a little bit of trouble. The team also faces the problem of having a strong set of finesse players, great skaters with excellent vision, sniping skills and hockey sense, but they fell prey to the Broncos more physical hockey on occasion - their checks weren't spectacular and for at least the first portion of the game they shied away from most physical contact. Bronco defenseman and Phoenix prospect Chris Frank, to the delight of the student section, crushed more than one member of the team before the game was over.
The goal scorers for Team USA were Kyle Okposo and Ryan Flynn mere minutes apart in the first period, Matt Rust in the second, and Mike Carman in the third. Both Bronco goals were from the new addition Max Campbell. Fans were given the opportunity to see both Team USA goalies, as they and the Broncos both swapped out their starting goaltenders with 8:54 left in the second period. (The Broncos proceeded to let perpetual third-stringer Matt Federico and his Darth Vader goalie mask have 2:57 of ice time as well - the first he's seen all season.)
Ten players notched points for Team USA, including Colin Wilson and Jamie McBain, who both had two point nights. Other notable performers were Leafs prospect Tyler Ruegsegger and Rangers prospect Bobby Sanguinetti. Second overall draft pick James VanRiemsdyk looked good, but was held off the scoresheet.
After the game, they held an autograph session where the entire team signed roster photo sheets and chatted with us. They were all charming and friendly (Rhett Rahkshani even offered to let us try his gross looking pastel green energy drink with 'protein powder' that he promised was delicious. We were skeptical and did not.)
The game itself was a great experience - the crowd was into it, and the Lawson Lunatics student section even forwent their usual "who cares, you suck!" cheers when the starting lineup for the opposition was announced. The Broncos put out a better effort than they have in quite a while (excepting the Wayne State games last weekend). Co-Captain Jeff LoVecchio summed it up saying, "Playing a team of that caliber, we knew we had to step it up. Last week was a huge step in the right direction and I think we continued that tonight." True story, 'Vecchs...now keep it up and apply it to some of those conference matches.
Team USA looked promising, while far from perfect, and should only continue to play better as the trip goes on. Hopefully they'll have a strong showing at the World Championships in Pardubice. Good luck boys, we're cheering for you!