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Chris Peters | | January 4, 2017

NCAA stars lead Team USA into semifinals of World Junior Championship

  St. Cloud State's head coach Bob Motzko is serving in that same role for the U.S. under-20s national team.

When it comes to the World Junior Championship lately, Team USA’s road to gold features a familiar hurdle – Russia. The Americans will meet their old hockey rivals Wednesday in Montreal at 3 p.m. ET with a spot in the gold-medal game on the line.

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To this point, Team USA’s run through the annual 10-nation tournament featuring the best players in the world under the age of 20, has been mostly flawless. A 4-0 record through the preliminary round featuring wins over Canada and Russia, and a tight quarterfinal win over Switzerland has the U.S. guaranteed to play for a medal for the second straight year after winning bronze in 2016.

The 23-player roster for the U.S. features 19 current Division I men’s college hockey standouts, so it is no surprise that the American effort has been driven by their NCAA stars. In all, 13 schools are represented by current or former players in this tournament on Team USA alone. On top of that, nine non-American collegiate players have also participated in the tournament, representing four different countries.

As is often the case, the U.S. leans heavily on college hockey for players on the ice, but also, coaches behind the bench. St. Cloud State University head coach Bob Motzko is serving in that same role for the U.S. under-20s and has brought an all-NCAA staff with him. Minnesota assistant Grant Potulny, Boston College associate head coach Greg Brown, Providence College assistant Kris Mayotte and Air Force Academy director of hockey Steve Miller are also part of the American coaching staff.

The U.S. will be looking to reach the final for the first time since 2013, but it won’t be easy. Russia has ended Team USA’s gold-medal bid in each of the last three World Junior Championships, including last year’s semifinal. This team, however, should go into the game with some confidence considering they’ve already beaten Russia once in this tournament.

Boston University’s Clayton Keller, Boston College’s Colin White and Denver’s Troy Terry each scored in USA’s 3-2 win on Dec. 29. The victory helped USA Hockey snap a five-game losing streak to Russia that dated back to the 2008 World Juniors.

Beating the same team twice in one tournament is awfully difficult to do, especially a team as skilled as the rival Russians. That said, this U.S. team has had very few hiccups in the tournament.

Reliant on a style that utilizes their overall team speed and crafty puck-moving capabilities, Team USA has been a handful for all of their opponents. Fans of St. Cloud State will surely recognize the similarities Motzko has instilled in his national team compared to his Huskies. Meanwhile, college hockey fans everywhere have seen some of the top freshmen and sophomores in the country take those same talents to excel on the world stage.

Here is a look at just a few of the contributions Team USA has been getting from top NCAA players in the tournament.

Boston University standouts lead the way

Team USA has six players from Boston University on the roster. Throw in Canada’s Dante Fabbro and the Terriers have sent seven players to the World Juniors, which is believed to be a record for a North American team in a single tournament. BU hasn’t just provided bodies, though. They’ve provided some of Team USA’s most crucial contributors.

Clayton Keller, a freshman and first-round draft pick of the Arizona Coyotes, overcame an injury just in time to be ready for the tournament. He has led the U.S. squad with eight points through five games. Right behind him on the team’s scoring chart is big Jordan Greenway, another Terrier who has six points including the game-winning goal against Switzerland in the quarterfinal.

On the back end, Boston Bruins first-round draft pick Charlie McAvoy has been Team USA’s busiest defenseman. Averaging nearly 20 minutes a game, the BU sophomore is the defenseman Motzko has leaned on in just about every situation. He also has four points through five games.

Meanwhile, fellow Terriers, Kieffer Bellows and Patrick Harper, have provided valuable forward depth. Harper, who is among the top freshman scorers in the NCAA this year, scored Team USA’s first goal of the tournament, while Bellows has seen his role increase with the team as the tournament has progressed.

BU’s star freshman goaltender Jake Oettinger is also on the U.S. squad, but has yet to appear in a game.

Don’t forget about the Eagles

Boston College also has heavy representation on Team USA’s roster, with three players making sizable contributions.

Colin White has been Team USA’s top goal scorer in the tournament. The Ottawa Senators first-rounder has four goals and an assist, while playing alongside his usual Boston rival, Keller.

One of the Eagles’ top defensemen, Casey Fitzgerald, has grown into a top-four role for the U.S. He is averaging more than 18 minutes a game and has three assists, while providing a steady presence in the defensive zone.

Then there’s freshman goalie Joseph Woll, who has been a rock for Boston College and has performed at a high level when called upon for Team USA. He’s only made two starts so far, but was tremendous in the Americans’ comfortable 3-1 win over rival Canada to close out the preliminary round. There is a good chance Woll gets the nod to go against Russia Wednesday with his .935 save percentage and 1.50 goals-against average in the tournament.

When you include Jesper and Julius Mattila, each of whom played for Team Finland, the Eagles sent five current players to the tournament. Not a bad showing from the Boston schools, one might say.

A captain for school and country

Though Team USA had two returnees from last year’s bronze-medal team, Team USA went with a World Junior rookie to be their captain. While he hadn’t played in the tournament last year, Luke Kunin is no rookie when it comes to leadership. He already wears the “C” at the University of Wisconsin as the first sophomore to captain the Badgers in 41 years.

Kunin, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, has been one of Team USA’s ice-time leaders as one of their best defensive forwards and top penalty killers. He has three points and has poured 17 shots on net.

While superstition has nothing to do with his selection as the U.S. captain, it probably didn’t hurt that each of the last two gold-medal winning teams for USA Hockey were also captained by Badgers. Derek Stepan led the U.S. to gold in 2010, while Jake McCabe wore the “C” for the 2013 champs.

By the way, Team USA’s first gold medal at the World Juniors came in 2004 with Mike Eaves behind the bench as head coach. The same Mike Eaves who was the last sophomore to serve as captain at the University of Wisconsin before Kunin.

What’s next for Team USA

Should Team USA advance past Russia into the gold-medal game, they’ll await the winner of the other semifinal between Sweden and host Canada. The World Junior Championship gold-medal game is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET Thursday in Montreal.

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