WCHA on Display in Team USA Win
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
In recent years, the World Junior Championships have morphed into one of the best kept secrets in hockey — a real treat to watch for hockey fans craving college puck over the seemingly endless two- or three-week stretch between mid-December and the bevy of holiday tournaments in the coming days.
If you missed Sunday's contest between the United States and Finland, shame on you. The game was a fantastic display of hockey between a group with tremendous speed and skill (the U.S.) and a group that plays disciplined, blue collar hockey (Finland).
The game was also a showcase for some of the best and brightest players in the WCHA. The Americans won the game 3-2, with a WCHA player scoring each one of the three goals. Minnesota Duluth's Justin Faulk blasted a pretty one-timer from the point to give the Americans a 1-0 lead late in the first period.
Then in the second, Denver's Jason Zucker — the Pioneers leading scorer at the halfway point of the season — took advantage of a Finland turnover and rifled a snap shot into the near side upper corner to make it 2-1 U.S. late in the second. It was a huge goal for the United States as Finland had dominated the second period and had tied the score just minutes earlier.
Then, midway through overtime, Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad gobbled up a loose puck and used the defenseman's screen to snap a wrist shot past Finland goaltender Joni Ortio for the game winner. It was Bjugstad's boxscore moment of the night, but far from his first impactful one.
Even before the goal, Bjugstad was a force in the game. Finland had no match for the 18-year old Golden Gopher, a rugged power forward who used his size and agility to create mismatches both on the rush and as a screen in front on the power play. After creating a power-play chance with a nifty move around a defender to draw a penalty in the second period, the U.S. had a goal waved off on a questionable in the crease call on Bjugstad early in the third — a play where Ortio had virtually no chance because he couldn't see around Bjugstad's ample frame.
In addition to the rock solid effort by WCHA players on the American roster, perhaps Finland's best skater on the night was Bjugstad's teammate at Minnesota, Erik Haula. The freshman had three 'Grade-A' scoring chances in the all-important second period and set up Finland's tying goal in the third period with a Bjugstad-like drive to the net that created the rebound for the goal.
While one game does not a league make, critics in recent years have said other leagues have passed the WCHA in terms of competitiveness and talent.
The WCHA dominated the college hockey landscape in the early and mid-2000s, winning six of seven national titles from 2000-06. And while some have argued the WCHA has been "down" because the league hasn't won a title since Wisconsin did in 2006, perhaps Sunday night's performance against Finland will silence the critics, proving again that the league is indeed back on top.