KINGS PROSPECT REPORT: JACK JOHNSON
LEKSAND, Sweden - It wasn't the medal Jack Johnson was hoping to win at the World Junior Hockey Championship but he knew it was better than no medal at all.
The United States National Junior Team won bronze with a 2-1 win over Sweden on Friday and the fact the Americans were able to dig deep and come with a medal-winning effort a day after a heart-wrenching loss to Canada speaks volumes about Johnson and company.
"We are happy to win a bronze, especially how we bounced back after an emotional loss a couple of nights ago and we are happy to have a medal," said Johnson, a Los Angeles Kings' prospect who plays for the University of Michigan.
The game Johnson was referring to ran the gamut of emotions. Canada won, 2-1, in a sudden death shootout when Canada's Jonathan Toews, a University of North Dakota forward, scored his third goal of the shootout to decide the contest.
Under international rules, a team can use the same shooter as many times as it wants when the shootout goes to sudden death. Johnson was asked to be the shooter twice for the U.S. and he scored each time.
"It was a devastating loss but we did not want to come all the way over here and have nothing to show for it," he said after the win over Sweden. "It was not too hard to get jacked up for this one. We said, 'We are Americans and we can bounce back.' There has not been a U.S. team before that won a bronze medal before so we left our mark here."
What you have to remember is that the bronze-medal game was the second time since the competition began that the United States had to refill the emotional well.
Team USA was considered a pre-tournament favorite but they opened with a 2-1 loss to Germany and then ran into Canada, the two-time defending champions, who beat their southerly North American neighbors, 6-3. But the score wasn't an indication of how close the game really was.
"We just could not buy a goal against Germany. We kind of looked at it as an easy game but obviously there are no pushover teams here anymore. Every team here is strong and Canada was a tough game," says Johnson, who joined the Kings organization in September in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Two straight losses put Johnson and his teammates in the unenviable position of having to play three must-win games to qualify for the semifinals. The Americans regrouped during a two-day break.
They dumped Slovakia, 6-1, and then beat the Swedes, 3-2, in overtime to qualify for the medal round before doubling up Finland, 6-3, in the quarterfinals.
"We bounced back and that was a turning point," said Johnson.
The Americans ran into a nervous Canadian team in the semifinals and the second meeting of these teams in just over a week and it was a hard-fought contest. The U.S. was less than 10 minutes from victory when the Canadians tied it. In overtime, the U.S. carried the play but Canadian goalie Carey Price was unbeatable.
The game went to a shootout and was tied again after three shooters apiece. It then went to sudden death and Johnson did his part.
"I'll never forget it," he said.
Johnson was a workhorse for Team USA, scoring 3-0=3, with two game-winning goals in the tournament.
"I thought I played well. I do not think you can rate your play just on points. You have to be able to say you tried your best and played your best and that's how I felt I played," he said.
"He is a great guy to have on your team. His skill level is one thing but more than anything he keeps guys in check out there," says Team USA captain Taylor Chorney. "You know when he is on the ice the opposing forwards are going to have their heads up all the time.
"I think he gets a lot of respect when he is on the ice."
Team USA Head Coach Ron Rolston feels there is a bright future for Jackson.
"He is a versatile player that can bring a lot of respect to the program," he said. "He is a warrior. He is a player who can put 30 minutes of ice time for you and still look fresh. Jack was a heart and soul guy for our team back there."
Johnson will return to Michigan and finish the season. He says he's not sure whether he is ready to step up to the NHL but he's about the only person who doubts that he's not ready for prime time.
Still, he has no problem day-dreaming about slipping a Kings jersey over his broad shoulders in the near future.
"I was really excited and shocked at first when they traded for me. It took almost a day to pass before it set in and I never thought I would be traded before I signed with someone. But I am excited and I am looking forward to be playing with them," said Johnson.
"I will have to see where I stand at the end of the year, to see if I am ready. It is a big step from the world juniors to the NHL. Hopefully I will be ready soon."
As he headed for the team bus for the drive to the airport and the flight back to the United States, Johnson reflected on his tour of duty at the 2007 World Junior Hockey Championship.
"It has been unbelievable, especially the route our team took. We were kind of hard on ourselves but we persevered and we came through in the clutch. We came up a little bit short but we can leave with our heads held high."
That they did.