Goaltending clinic not enough for Poland
by Chris JUREWICZ|17 MAY 2024
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andrea Cardin
John Murray played the game of his life.

The American-turned-Pole stopped 53 shots before a large, raucous, pro-Polish crowd on Friday at the 2024 IIHF World Championship, albeit in a losing cause, with the United States beating Poland 4-1. But Murray kept the overmatched Poles in the game, much to the delight of the thousands of fans clad in red and white jerseys at Ostrava Arena.

And though the Americans earned the three points, the story of the game was the play of Murray, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania native who played in the AHL, ECHL and Central Hockey League before making the move to professional hockey in Poland in 2013-14.

"Even at this level, it shows that the separation isn’t much," said Murray. "We came out here, left everything out here and the separation was that we got beat to the net a few times, our guys were a little slow making it back. We’re not used to the speed and it showed tonight."

At the 15-minute mark of the second period, Murray made the save of the tournament in this writer’s eyes when he absolutely stoned Brock Nelson, a New York Islander sniper who has put together three consecutive 30-plus goal seasons in the NHL. Nelson snapped a hard shot that seemed to be going top shelf when, out of nowhere, Murray flashed the leather and grabbed the puck with his glove, leaving Nelson to put his head down in disbelief.

Give the Americans credit, though, as they stuck with their game despite not cashing in on a number of Grade A chances. Brady Tkachuk led the way with a goal and three assists for the Americans, who outshot Poland 57-21.

"We got off to as slow start and left it to chance. We didn't bring our A game in the first but after that I thought we started to get pucks deep and did a good job in the second and third," said USA defender Seth Jones. "Tonight, we ran into a hot goalie and when you do, you have to shoot the puck. It was incredible some of the saves he made."

The first period was entertaining, with both Poland and the United States having great looks but Murray and his counterpart at the other end of the ice – American Trey Augustine – holding their ground.

Poland appeared to take a 1-0 lead just a few minutes in when Patryk Wronka raced to a loose puck in the neutral zone, went into the American zone, made a great move around a defender, and snapped the puck past Augustine. But, following a quick video review, officials deemed the play offside as Bartosz Fraszko entered the US zone before Wronka, the puck carrier.

Team USA started taking the game over in the second, outshooting Poland 25-5 in the frame.

Early on, Nelson split the Polish D and got a chance in close, but his shot was swallowed up by Murray. Moments later, Murray stopped Luke Hughes after the dynamic American defender made a spin move around Mateusz Michalski and went to the net and got a good shot on Murray.

At 8:45, Johnny Gaudreau got a breakaway after a beautiful stretch pass from Columbus teammate Zach Werenski and went forehand to backhand and tried to slide it through five-hole but was denied by Murray.

About 90 seconds later, Tkachuk skated up ice on a 2-on-1 and saw defender Michael Kesselring turn on the jets to make it a 3-on-1. Tkachuk dropped the puck back to Kesselring, who took the puck and wired a shot bar down. Great play, great shot and the Americans were ahead 1-0.

Tkachuk made it 2-0 at 19:17 when he drove the net and slammed in a rebound and then tripped into the net, barely escaping a collision with the cross bar.

Cole Caufield scored his first of the tournament just over a minute into the third when he one-timed a backhanded pass by Tkachuk. Caufield, the Montreal Canadiens star, has been on a line with Ottawa Senators Tkachuk and Shane Pinto.

"It’s easier playing with them, than against them," said Caufield. "Two hard-working guys, they’re easy to play with and it’s a lot of fun."

Give Poland credit as Caufield’s goal didn’t kill the Polish spirit. At 6:22, Grzegorz Pasiut snapped the puck past Augustine to make it 3-1 but, midway through the third, Tkachuk picked up his fourth point as he assisted on Caufield’s second of the game.

Team USA moves to 10 points with the win, good for second place in Group B, two points back of Sweden. Poland stays in last in the group with a single point and has games remaining against Germany and Kazakhstan as it tries to climb out of the basement to stay in the main group for next year.

"Going back to that France game, we struggled," said Murray of a 4-2 loss to the French. "We would have liked to play better against them knowing that basically is our tournament - France and Kazakhstan. We were able to show ourselves at this really high level tonight and we showed that we were competitive. We have two games left, and we know we have to win one."