Malmo, Sweden - With early momentum hanging in the balance, the U.S. National Junior Team needed goaltender Jon Gillies to hold the fort until the offense awoke against Slovakia on Saturday in the second game for both teams at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship.
The American goaltender stood tall, weathered several scoring chances when the game was tied 0-0, which allowed Team USA time to stir its offense to life and ultimately jump out to a 3-0 lead on Slovakia.
"I was just trying to keep us in the game," Gillies said. "I was able to be there at the beginning and they were there at the end."
Head coach Don Lucia credited his goaltender for covering for some defensive lapses in the early stages of the game.
"[Gillies' saves] were critical," Lucia said. "We made some mistakes ... but Gillies made the save when we did."
Gillies specifically bailed out his defensemen on some turnovers deep in the U.S. end. His efforts didn't go unnoticed by teammates as defenseman Matt Grzelcyk said Gillies was a calming presence in net.
"We knew coming in that goaltending was one of the biggest things," he said. "As a D corps it's something we've talked about how it gives us confidence and let's us step up and make plays knowing there is a solid goaltender back there."
With the 3-0 lead, Team USA started a parade to the penalty box that saw four consecutive U.S. penalties and led to two Slovakian power-play goals. A large Canadian-heavy crowd awoke and cheered loudly as momentum switched away from the Americans. Gillies was, again, called on to steady the game.
"John came up huge," Grzelcyk said.
The last of the run of penalties ended when the skaters in front of Gillies pitched in, such as a big block by Ryan Hartman in the high slot, to turn the tide.
"You go through a tournament it's like a boxing match, you're going to win some rounds and lose some rounds. It's about winning the match," Lucia said.
Gillies said he learned during the 2013 World Juniors tournament, in which he watched teammate John Gibson's calm approach to every game, to never let emotions control his play.
"That's what the goaltender is for," Gillies said. "Keep it even keel all the time. Never too high, never too low. I tried to relay it to my team in the third period."
Lucia and Team USA hope that steady presence continues as the grueling tournament continues through the group play and beyond.
Up next for Team USA is Germany on Sunday at 9 a.m. ET. The game will be shown live on NHL Network and streamed online live on NHL.com.