Keith Allain wanted to be a world-beater from the start. During his first two stints as Team USA's junior coach, Allain had his squad psyched to skate from Day One.
Interestingly enough, that's probably not the best approach. No one wins the world junior championship in the first game. It's nearly a two-week road to the title, and Allain learned it's wise not to peak too soon. His U.S. teams finished fifth in 2001 and 2002.
"You learn something with every experience, specifically in those tournaments I was trying to be great for the opening night and I think other teams got better as the tournament went on," Allain said Sunday. "I've learned that you really have to progress as a hockey team each and every day."
Allain, then, wasn't expecting a gold-medal performance Sunday night when the Americans opened their 2011 tournament against Finland. He got a thrilling one, though, with Nick Bjugstad's overtime goal allowing the Americans to avoid an upset with a 3-2 victory in front of 14,093.
"The fact that it was a hard win will be good for us to build off of," Allain said. "Losing sometimes can be a great teacher, but not in the first game of a tournament. Having to fight like we did, I think we can get lots of lessons from it."
He walked into HSBC Arena expecting mistakes and growing pains, issues he wants to resolve as Team USA gets closer to what he hopes is a second straight title.
"It's not a process that's going to be over on Dec. 26," Allain said. "The real key to this tournament is to win games while you're improving as a team. That's what we're going to try to do."
The U.S. team needed Bjugstad's goal after the Finns continued their puck control and tied the game with 7:01 left in the third period. Bjugstad caught a break when a Finnish clearing pass struck the skate of a changing player, allowing the Minnesotan to pick up the puck and beat goaltender Joni Ortio with a shot from the left circle with 1:52 left in OT.
"It was definitely my biggest goal ever," Bjugstad said. "I just cut across and shot it between the D's legs, and I don't think the goalie really saw it. I think he would have had it with a straight-on shot, but it was kind of a muffin and trickled in."
The Americans were slow to start and didn't establish themselves until the Finns took a pair of penalties late in the first period. The second resulted in Justin Faulk's power-play goal with 1:06 remaining.
The U.S. team showed resiliency in the second period, a trait that certainly will help during wild games later in the tourney. Jason Zucker scored just 78 seconds after Finland tied the game, ending a short-lived tie created when the Americans committed two turnovers behind their net.
"That's the one thing I'm already starting to love about this team is our character," said U.S. goaltender Jack Campbell, who made 32 saves. "It was a great win for us, but at the same time we have a lot to learn. I'm excited about lies ahead."
The Americans are favored to repeat and have embraced that status. Allain, though, is continuing his "keep building" approach and wouldn't think of saying this year's squad is as good as last year's.
"I wouldn't say that today," he said. "I think we'll find out. That's what the tournament is for. I think that we've got a number of days here where we've got to get better, get better as a hockey team. If we meet the challenges in the tournament the way the team did last year, then maybe we can discuss that."
Allain has quickly established a no-nonsense persona this tournament. The Yale coach is said to make practices at his university enjoyable events, but he also makes it clear what he expects. It's working at Yale, which is the NCAA's No. 1-ranked team, and Team USA hopes it works in Buffalo.
"He kind of shows if you're not going to play hard, you're not going to play at all," U.S. forward Jerry D'Amigo said. "You need that as a coach to kind of instill that in some of the guys."
D'Amigo is one of eight players returning to defend their championship. For Allain, those eight are the same as the other 14.
"We don't preach team. We believe team," Allain said. "It's not something that we're making up and selling to people. It's how you have to be successful in this tournament."
Allain entered Sunday's game as the U.S. coach with the best winning percentage in world junior competition. He was 9-3-2 during his first two stints. When USA Hockey approached him for a third term, he quickly said yes.
"The honor of representing your country in international competition is absolutely unbelievable," he said. "The fact that they'd ask you is very, very humbling. To me it's almost like an extended coaching clinic. You have high-level players, you're surrounded by other high-level coaches. You get to watch their games. There's actually no downside, that's for sure."
Allain hopes the experience and his team's play continue to go up.