With six days remaining before the puck drops at the IIHF World Junior Championships, Team USA snatched an encouraging overtime victory from defending gold medalists Sweden. Coach Phil Housley is tasked with making three more cuts to his squad before traveling to the Russian host city of Ufa.
The tilt was the first of two warm-up games that the United States will play before beginning the World Juniors against Germany on Dec. 27. The team will take on Finland in Helsinki on Saturday, before announcing their final 23-man roster.
Housley scratched six of his 26 players for today's game, all six of whom are considered locks for the team.
Highly touted defenders Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones sat out having solidified their roles long ago.
Trouba, who was drafted by Winnipeg ninth overall in the 2012 NHL draft, is one of three returnees from last year's team and will undoubtedly play a major role in Russia. Jones, on the other hand, is expected to go head to head with Canadian center Nathan MacKinnon in a battle to become the top overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft.
Forwards Rocco Grimaldi, J.T. Miller and Johnny Gaudreau were also healthy scratches. The trio is expected to be America's top line, after showing excellent chemistry during training camp in Tarrytown, N.Y. Starting goaltender John Gibson also made way for battling backups Garret Sparks and Jon Gillies.
With the team looking to cut one forward and two defenseman, the game was a crucial opportunity for bubble players to make an impact and earn a spot on the final roster.
Though the Americans came out looking fast and dangerous, the Swedes struck first off the stick of Emil Molin.
Team USA fired back quickly less than three minutes later when Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder Connor Murphy went high glove side on Niklas Lundström, assisted by Vince Trocheck and Jim Vesey.
The red, white and blue took the lead in the second when Notre Dame winger Mario Lucia found Ryan Hartman for the strike.
The Swedes clawed back in the waining moments of the second when Rickard Rackell beat Gillies to tie the game at two.
The game was ruled by constant penalties, with players from both teams sentenced to two minutes in the sin bin a total of 18 times.
Despite the strict refereeing the Americans got the last laugh in the extra frame. Bubble defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere launched the walk-off blast off of a Sean Kuraly faceoff win just 1:38 into OT.
Gostisbehere's goal should go a long way toward earning him a spot in a hotly contested battle among the blueliners. Assuming Trouba and Jones are locks, seven players are fighting for five spots.
Connor Murphy, Jake McCabe and Matt Grzelcyk made strong cases in camp and should find their way to Russia.
Union College's Gostisbehere, Patrick Sieloff, Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei are among those fending off the axe. Skjei, a New York Rangers first-round pick, could be on his last legs for the US.
The big defender is a strong skater, but he has struggled to contribute for the University of Minnesota this fall with just two points.
Chris Peters of The United States of Hockey blog had the following to say about him after the game:
When he was skating in open ice and using his strengths, he looked just fine, but I don’t know if he did enough today to move himself off the bubble.The big question for Skjei right now is, is he ready for this tournament? He has another year of eligibility and while experience this year would be good, I’m uncertain it’s his time just yet.
Forward Jim Vesey may have done the most to earn himself a spot with a very strong performance. The Harvard University freshman took an exam in the morning and was named player of the game in the afternoon. The winger was a constant threat and assisted on Connor Murphy's goal.
The question remains, if Vesey is in, then who is out?
It could be anyone's guess at this point, because no forward in particular looks deserving of a lonely flight home.
A close eye will be kept on proceedings over the next few days, as Phil Housley prepares to make some very tough decisions.
Meanwhile, Team Canada, the clear gold-medal favorites, lost to Finland 3-2. The Canadians are stocked with future superstars made available by the NHL lockout and will be very tough to beat.
Despite the looming threat of the Canadian juggernauts and the Russian hosts, Team USA should feel very positive about their victory over Sweden. The team should look even better with the likes of Trouba, Jones, Miller and Gibson on the ice.