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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum Communications Co., Published December 26 2009

Blais has his kind of squad with speedy USA World Juniors team

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – When Ralph Engelstad Arena was built nine years ago, Dean Blais had one of his main philosophies posted just outside of the University of North Dakota’s locker room: Speed kills.

Blais left the school five years ago, but the saying still stands. And it appears, so does his philosophy.

The 2010 U.S. World Junior team opens play at 7 tonight with a preliminary game against Slovakia. If there’s one thing that highlights the Blais-led Americans, it is their speed.

Forwards Danny Kristo, Jordan Schroeder and Tyler Johnson – the three returning members from last year’s fifth-place squad – all are speed burners.

The Americans also added Ryan Bourque, Kyle Palmieri, Jason Zucker and Chris Kreider to the forward group. Although only one player in those players is taller than 6 feet, they all have dynamic speed.

They showed that during last Saturday’s 4-2 exhibition against the Sioux. Team USA’s goals were scored by Kreider (two), Zucker and Kristo.

They were favorites in that game. But once the U.S. team starts play in Saskatoon, Sask., they will be underdogs.

The Americans have only won two medals in the last 12 years (gold in 2004, bronze in 2007) and five medals in the history of the tournament. Winning another one will be the team’s goal this year.

“We’re not going up there just to drink Molson Canadian,” said Blais, who is taking a month-long hiatus from his job coaching Nebraska-Omaha to join the Americans. “We’re going up there to medal. I think the talent is there.”

Blais has been working on the team’s cohesion during the last week. For the first time ever, the Americans held a pre-tournament camp in Grand Forks. During the camp, Blais limited cell phone use and didn’t allow his players to listen to headphones in the locker room, because he wanted them to interact.

The team made one round of cuts on Sunday and named the final squad on Wednesday morning. Here are the highlights of the team:

E Goaltenders: Blais is very comfortable with his two goalies – Roseau, Minn., native Mike Lee and U.S. Under-18 goalie Jack Campbell. Lee and Blais led the Fargo Force to the United States Hockey League finals last season, while Campbell led the Americans to gold at the Under-18 tournament, which was held in Fargo.

Goaltending was a weakness for the U.S. team last season, but Blais believes it will be a strength this year.

E Defensemen: The blue liners are offensively dynamic. John Carlson, who already has played three games in the NHL for the Washington Capitals, is the leader of the group. Cam Fowler is expected to be a top-five pick in June. He’s also nifty with the puck.

E Forwards: This group is the biggest question mark heading into the tournament. They have speed, but it’s a very young group with little experience. Kristo, Schroeder and Wisconsin’s Derek Stepan should lead the group.

“I think we’ll have enough guys to be contenders,” Blais said.

Brad Schlossman is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.