The hockey snow globe at New Era Field was turning into a winter disaster for Team USA. After a lackluster showing in a 3-2 loss to Slovakia on Thursday night, the United States found itself trailing its nemesis, Canada, by two goals Friday in the first outdoor game ever held at the World Junior Championship.
But the U.S. locker room during that intermission was positive. Filled with jokes even.
"It was loose. Pretty funny," said U.S. forward Casey Mittelstadt. "Honestly some of the guys were joking around talking about how good of a story it would be if we came back and won."
The U.S. got its storybook ending on Friday. The event was everything the outdoor game was supposed to be – 44,000 fans in the stands with cold, snowy conditions that hark back to pond hockey days of youth and lore.
Special things happen in the snow.
And something special certainly happened in the persistent snow at New Era Field. As Friday afternoon turned to evening, the United States roared back against Canada for a 4-3 shootout win.
While Canada was in control of the game, with leads of 2-0 and 3-1, the U.S. kept its composure and scored a pair of third-period goals to tie the game, 3-3.
The U.S. won in a shootout with goals from Kieffer Bellows and Brady Tkachuk and four saves from goaltender Jake Oettinger.
It was a comeback for the ages, a game that players will remember for the rest of their lives.
"There's a lot of passion in that locker room and there's a lot of heart in that locker room and guys sticking up for one another," Bellows said. "We wanted this badly and they came out hot but in the end it was a great fight."
"When we're down, we don't blame each other," said forward Ryan Poehling. "We just rise above it with one another."
Rise above it the U.S. did – the bad game the night before, the deficit, the weather.
The game started with a very fine snow but the intensity picked up during the course of the game. It was falling heavy and steadily by the second period with frequent shovel breaks necessary to attempt to keep the surface in playing condition.
By the third period that was a nearly impossible task with piles of snow building everywhere on the ice. Skating was slow and the puck didn't glide very far, or fast. By the end of the third the snow had tapered back to a light shower.
While most of the players said the weather didn't impact the game too much, that the ice was fine and gratuitously thanked the ice crew, there were some noticeable challenges.
"No one could really ice the puck. That's how much snow there was," Poehling said.
"It was difficult to track the puck especially in the second period because the wind was blowing the snow around but it was part of the game and it was a fun challenge," Oettinger said.
The biggest challenge the U.S. had to overcome was a talented Canadian team that had gained momentum.
Canada struck 4:13 into the game. A high sticking call on Dylan Samberg put Canada on the power play and a shot from Cale Makar from the point found its way past Oettinger for a 1-0 lead.
The U.S. had a chance to respond with its own power play about three minutes later when Jonah Gadjovich of Canada was called for boarding U.S. defenseman Ryan Lindgren. But the Americans failed to find a scoring touch as a light snow became more persistent during the opening period.
Canada again scored on the power play to extend its lead to 2-0 with 4:43 left in the first. U.S. defender Mikey Anderson was called for holding the stick and Dillon Dube took a pass from Sam Steel in the slot and scored.
With a steady snow and deteriorating ice conditions, the U.S. got a 5-on-3 power play late in the second period when Brett Howden (cross-checking) and Alex Foremton (slashing) went to the box at the same time. That allowed the Americans to get on the board when Bellows took a pass from Mittelstadt and ripped a shot past Canadian goalie Carter Hart. That gave the U.S. life and cut the lead to 2-1.
Ah, but Canada responded just over a minute later. Boris Katchouk was stopped by Oettinger on a breakaway. The U.S. attempt to clear stalled at the blueline and Jake Bean picked up the puck and fired it toward the net. Katchouk tipped the puck in to regain Canada a two-goal lead.
"We were down 3-1 and I turned to my assistant coach and I said, ‘It’s too bad,'" U.S. coach Bob Motzko said. "There were hardly any plays being made. It was going to be tough to come back because of the ice conditions. It’s a game you don’t want to chase and we were chasing. I said, ‘It’s too bad, it’s just an unbelievable setting right now and how it’s playing out.'"
The good news for Motzko and Team USA was that there were still 20 minutes left to play out.
And the U.S. was eager to write a different ending.
The U.S. got a power play 4:55 into the third when Maxime Comtois was called for boarding. Mittelstadt fed a pass to Scott Perunovich, who streamed toward the net and scored to cut the Canadian lead to 3-2.
Then Mittelstadt set up the third U.S. goal, taking the puck from behind the net and feeding Brady Tkachuk in front with 13:17 left to play, tying the game, 3-3.
The key for the U.S. was sticking to the game plan.
"Just keep it simple," Bellows said. "Keep the puck moving. Get it deep. Grind game, down low. Just put pucks to the net. Anything can happen with bounces in this type of game. That was our mentality and it worked out. We're very fortunate. Credit to Canada. Gave us a fantastic game. Really a fantastic team over there."
After a scoreless overtime the game went to a five-round shoot out. The ice was resurfaced before the shootout and by that time the snow had stopped, making it easier for the goaltenders to track the puck.
Canada shot first and Oettinger made the save on Sam Steel. He made three more to secure the win for the U.S.
"I knew the guys. I knew who they were but I didn't know their tendencies or anything like that," Oettinger said about the shootout. "When you get in a shootout like that, it's pretty much try to make them make the first move and make the right read. When it comes down to that it's just about battling."
The United States gets a rest day before continuing its battle in the preliminary round, closing out at 4 p.m. Sunday when they play Finland in KeyBank Center.
The U.S. is in second place in Group A, getting two points for the shootout win for five points in three games.
"Obviously the response was big for our group but I think more importantly we played the game the way we wanted to play," said U.S. captain Joey Anderson. "I think that was the biggest thing. We came out. We had our game plan and we stuck to it. The results were just in our favor tonight."
Canada still has control of Group A, getting one point for the shootout loss. With two wins, Canada has seven points and closes out its preliminary round at 8 p.m. Saturday playing winless Denmark in KeyBank Center.