- Scott Burnside, NHL
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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- What began as an annoying loose thread with Wednesday's shocking 5-3 loss to lowly Belarus has now become a full-fledged unraveling of the gold medal cloak for the United States' junior team following a disheartening 3-1 loss to the Czech Republic on Thursday night.
On a practical level the loss in what was easily the most entertaining game of the World Junior Championship tournament thus far dropped the Americans to the third seed in their pool and forces them to play in a quarterfinal game Saturday against Sweden, a game they never thought they would have to play.
On a deeper, more troubling level, the failure to rise to the occasion, to get big-time plays from their big-time players both offensively and in goal leaves this U.S. team with an apparent crisis of confidence at a time when any further misstep will signal the end of any hopes of successfully defending last year's first-ever gold medal win on home soil.
"We can't really dwell on this at all. It hurts because I thought we played a little better than we did against Belarus. We played a full 60 minutes," said U.S. forward Drew Stafford, who plays here for the University of North Dakota.
Had the Americans shrugged off their stunning loss to Belarus as they promised and defeated the Czechs, they would have finished the preliminary portion of the tournament with a 3-1 record and the top spot in their pool, thus earning a bye and crucial time off to heal and prepare for the semifinals Sunday.
Since the current medal-round format was adopted in 1996, three teams (Russia in 1999 and 2002 and Canada in 1997) have won gold the hard way by winning three straight elimination games.
So important was gaining the victory and earning a bye that U.S. coach Scott Sandelin pulled goaltender Al Montoya with 3:45 to play in the third period and the Americans trailing 2-1.
"We did everything we could but score," said Sandelin, who was without the services of top forward Chris Bourque (out with a knee injury) and had to shorten his blue line because of illness and injury.
Instead, the Americans' top offensive players continued a disturbing trend of not being able to capitalize on their chances in crucial situations. They fired high and wide of open nets, hit prone Czech players or more often than not fired into hitherto unknown Czech goaltending sensation Vladislav Koutsky, who turned aside 38 shots -- including more than a handful of the spectacular variety.
At the game's outset, it might have appeared the Americans had an early edge when Czech coach Alois Hadamczik opted to start the untested Koutsky in net in place of No. 1 netminder Marek Schwarz, who had played in the three previous games.
While Schwarz has drawn comparisons to countryman Dominik Hasek and was selected 17th overall by the St. Louis Blues in last June's NHL entry draft, the undrafted Koutsky was an unknown quantity. He was given the start because even a victory would not give the Czechs a bye because they had previously lost to Russia.
Koutsky is unknown no longer, at least not as far as the memories of a frustrated U.S. team goes.
"I think it helped a bit [having a lot of shots] because you know when a goalie faces a lot of shots he's in a zone, better than when there are less shots," Koutsky said through an interpreter.
Among his 38 stops, none was bigger than a sprawling left toe save on Stafford with 8½ minutes left in the third period.
Stafford was sent in alone by the curiously underutilized Robbie Schremp and looked to have the tying goal wrapped up after a nice deke. But Koutsky jabbed his left toe at the left minute to make the stop.
"He stood on his head," Stafford said.
In spite of the team's failure to deliver timely scoring, players and coaches inside Team USA's dressing room insist morale is high and they are looking forward to facing a Swedish team that earned the second seed in the opposite pool by goal differential, edging Finland and Slovakia.
"I think if you keep working you're going to get those bounces. We did create a lot of chances. We worked very hard for those chances," Sandelin said.
If hard work can be expected to yield results offensively, the U.S. team is also hoping that netminder Al Montoya will put aside his curiously inconsistent play to deliver his best performance.
Although Montoya was only beaten twice on 33 shots, the winning goal was a long-range slapshot by Lukas Kaspar that beat Montoya through the five-hole to give the Czechs a 2-0 lead 57 seconds into the second period. It proved to be a hole from which the Americans could not emerge.
"You always want the goals back, especially that second one. But there's nothing you can do about it. You've got to put it behind you," Montoya said.
In the Americans' shocking loss to Belarus on Wednesday, Montoya came on in relief of Cory Schneider and immediately gave up a 70-footer that gave Belarus a 4-1 lead.
If it seems unfair to shoulder Montoya with the blame for what may prove to be a crippling loss, it must be remembered that goaltending was the one area that was supposed to be the Americans' edge in this tournament.
Instead, the team has allowed 16 goals in four games, one more than it has scored.
"I always want to keep going in the right direction. I've felt more comfortable as the tournament's gone on. But there's only so many games left, so you've got to start turning it on," said Montoya, who was a perfect 6-0 in last year's championship run in Helsinki, a performance that led to the New York Rangers making him the sixth overall pick in last June's entry draft.
"Tonight felt better as it went on. We've just got to keep going in the right direction with it. It starts with me and works its way on up. I'm here to make a difference and I know I can make a difference."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
After two consecutive losses at the World Junior Championship, Team USA is in a full-blown crisis of confidence.