Great job by J.T. Miller and his U.S. National Junior Team cohorts, who finished off a tremendous World Junior Championship run with a 3-1 win this morning over defending-champion Sweden to capture the WJC gold medal in Ufa, Russia.
It was a tight game all the way, and Sweden actually scored first, but the U.S. eventually pulled it out, with Miller making the late defensive play in his own zone that sent Vince Trocheck away for the game-clinching empty-netter.
That victory capped off a classic case of getting hot at just the right time, for a USA squad that lost three of its first four round-robin games and faced a must-win situation against Slovakia in their last game of the round-robin just to reach the medal round. Miller and his mates came up big in that game, trouncing the Slovaks 9-3, the start of a three-game stretch in which the U.S. outscored its opposition by a combined margin of 21-4 on the way to the gold medal game.
The contest against Sweden was quite a bit different than the way the offense flowed in the Slovakia game, a 7-0 victory over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals and the statement 5-1 triumph over Canada in the semis, and the U.S. needed a couple of distinctly ugly goals by Rocco Grimaldi in the second period to bring them back from that 1-0 deficit. Once they got the lead, though, the USA seemed to play a smart game and kept the prime chances-against to a relative minimum. When they did give one up, goaltender John Gibson was there. He made 26 saves in the game and captured tournament MVP honors, with a 1.36 goals-against average and glittering 95.5% save percentage.
Miller, for his part, shone for the USA as an assistant captain and one of the group’s key older players. The assist on Trocheck’s open-netter was Miller’s seventh helper of the tournament, which tied him for second-most among all tourney skaters. Overall, Miller finished with nine points, adding two goals to those seven assists, and that was good for a tie for the U.S. team lead and for fifth overall in the tournament.
The gold medal was the third ever in the USA’s World Junior Tournament history, and all three have had a distinct Whale/Wolf Pack presence. In addition to Miller’s contributions this year, Al Montoya backstopped the U.S. to the 2004 WJC title before moving on to the Wolf Pack crease two years later, and Ryan Bourque and Chris Kreider were both regulars for the 2010 USA squad that knocked off Canada in overtime of that year’s gold medal game.
It’s a long trip back stateside now for the boys, but I have to think that the excitement of winning gold, especially the way they did it with the great late charge, will be enough to keep them all on a high as they go back to their regular teams. Miller was playing pretty darned well for the Whale before his departure, and it will be interesting to see how much more jump he has in his step when he returns to the AHL.
In any case, congratulations, J.T., on a great accomplishment and look forward to getting you back in a CT Whale jersey!