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World Juniors: Team USA sets sights on gold medal repeat

The first rule about defending the gold medal is that you don't talk about defending the gold medal.

That might be a bit of hyperbole for the U.S. National Junior Team. But make no mistake, last year is a memory and the road to winning a second consecutive gold at the World Junior Championship has the United States focused on the present, not the past.

"It's not like 'don't talk about it' but it hasn't really been our mindset," said forward Joey Anderson who is one of seven returners from last year's team and captain of the 2018 version. "It's a new group and new guys and I think we've done a great job focusing on this group and the chemistry we have and making sure we're focused on winning another gold medal this year instead of looking at how it happened last year."

But there are moments from last year's run that provide a touchstone for the Americans, examples the veterans bring to the first-timers at the World Juniors. And the lessons have little to do with the dramatic 5-4 shootout win over Canada in the gold medal game.

Instead, the lessons from last year have everything to do with managing emotions and energy while embracing a team-first mentality in order to grind out wins on days when you might not have your best game.

"Especially for those young guys and guys that have never been here before, it's about letting them know you've got to do whatever it takes,  whatever role it is that you have to buy into," said returning forward Kieffer Bellows. "Obviously all of us are top players wherever we come from but it's about buying into the team aspect and also about away from the rink making sure you're getting optimal rest, getting the right food in you, going to bed at a good time. Because it's a short tournament and you're playing a lot of games in a short amount of time. You've just got to be ready for that."

The returning players know that winning ugly is sometimes the name of the game. In fact, when asked about last year's tournament, the first reference is typically the quarterfinal game against Switzerland.

In that matchup, the U.S. took a 2-0 first-period lead only to see the Swiss come back and tie the game. A power-play goal in the final four minutes allowed the Americans to advance to the semifinals. It wasn't the best game for Team USA but it was a must-win.

"The things you learn are just the ups and downs of that tournament. In one game it can be over – like the game against Switzerland in the quarterfinals," returning defenseman Ryan Lindgren said. "We just didn't have our game and it was such a close game. We were able to grind through it and get the win. … You've got to keep your emotions in check. Not get too high. You've got to go through adversity. I think that's a really big thing in this tournament."

Adversity. That's the key word for coach Bob Motzko. The 13-year head coach at St. Cloud State is in his second year coaching the U.S. National Junior Team.

For Motzko, everything in this tournament is about how the players handle adversity. Talent? Sure. The U.S. has plenty of talent. But it's how they handle the tough moments – the moments when the game isn't going their way – that can mean the difference between a gold medal and going home empty-handed.

"I think the biggest challenge in this always is how a team handles adversity because it is going to smack you right on the side of the noggin," Motzko said. "We have to be as a group ready to pick up for each other, battle through some tough moments. We've got 11 days together once that tournament starts and we've got to be able to handle adversity."

The players who will be dealt that adversity will be playing a style of hockey similar to last year's team. The names of changed, but the skill is the same. There's speed. There's size. There are marquee names and gritty role players.

Among the difficult lineup decisions will be Team USA's staring goaltender. Both Jake Oettinger and Joseph Woll were part of last year's gold-medal winning team. Woll, a sophomore at Boston College, got two games last year. Oettinger, a sophomore at rival Boston University, was on Team USA as the third-string goalie and did not see game action.

On the blue line, the U.S. returns two players. Lindgren is a shut-down player, a defender who will steady the penalty kill and be called upon to play against opponents' best offensive threats.

But the Americans have some offensive threats from the backline as well. Also returning is Adam Fox who last year led all defensemen in college hockey in points per game (1.14). He has nine assists in 10 games in his sophomore season at Harvard.

The U.S. defensemen have showed an ability to get the puck up the ice and efficiently start breakouts. They also can jump in the play in the offensive zone. If there's one drawback of the U.S. blueline it's that they can be too offensive-minded, getting caught a few times in their exhibition game against Belarus and surrendering odd-man rushes. Woll bailed them out on those small gaffes.

As for the forwards, the group runs deep. Motzko and his staff love all the pieces they have. How to put the pieces together in a giant moving jigsaw puzzle is part of the challenge, and the fun, of the World Junior tournament.

Camp featured a plethora of line combinations and the expectation is that the lines will be fluid and interchangeable throughout the tournament.

The forwards are stacked with players who could have the potential to be impact players in the National Hockey League over the next two years.

Casey Mittelstadt, whom the Buffalo Sabres made the eighth overall pick at the 2017 NHL draft, is among the key components of the American's offense. He can play center or wing, and likely will play both this tournament.

Mittelstadt may get some time at center with Kailer Yamamoto on his right wing. Yamamoto was a first-round selection by Edmonton and had three assists in nine games for the Oilers this season before being returned to his Western Hockey League team.

Bellows, meanwhile, is excelling with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League, choosing to sign with the Canadian major-junior team after one season at Boston University. In 31 games with the Winterhawks he has 40 points (19 goals, 21 assists) and a plus-22 rating. He had two goals and one assist in winning gold with Team USA last year and figures to be part of the American leadership group in Buffalo.

Anderson was the surprise of last year's tournament, carving out a role for himself over the course of the 11-day tournament. He has a strong all-around game, can play in any situation, and has distinguished himself with leadership ability.

"What makes him a captain is just every day is the same for him in his work ethic and his commitment and his passion for the game," Motzko said of Anderson. "To have him on the team a year ago, and he developed that role. He took a very strong role on our team last year. He didn't have it at the beginning. As the tournament went on, he quickly showed how responsible he was with important minutes."

The U.S. will need another Joey Anderson this year, another player who unexpectedly takes the reins when necessary to get team through the demands of the tournament.

"The adversity we're going to have, some guys, there's no question, when the bright lights shine they grow strong in those moments," Motzko said. "Some guys haven't been in those moments and when the bright lights come, they might get taken back for a little bit and that's part of it. Part of growing up, these are young, young players."

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