Bronze-Medal Game Preview

At 3:30 p.m. EST, the U.S. has a chance to win a medal. No, it’s not the one they wanted most, but its one they want now.

The last time Sweden and the U.S. met in the bronze medal game, it was just after the U.S. had lost to Canada in a shootout  in 2007 (SEE: Jonathan Toews). The U.S., however, was able to rally around each other and ended up beating Sweden on their home soil, 2-1, for bronze. There were a lot of stars that played in that game. Guys like Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, Patrick Kane, Nathan Gerbe, Jack Skille, Peter Mueller and James vanRiemsdyk were part of that American squad. The Swedish team boasted Nicklas Backstrom, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Patric Hornqvist, Linus Omark and Nicklas Bergfors. So keep in mind, folks: The bronze medal might be on the line, but these two teams playing this afternoon have a lot of future star power, as well.

Winning bronze is such a difficult task. The emotion of losing in the semis can’t carry over to this afternoon’s contest. Canada’s outworking of Team USA should leave a very sour taste in the mouths of the American players. It would be a shame to go out of this tournament with a pair of losses at the end. So, will that be enough to allow them to rise up for a game against perhaps the most talented team at the tournament on paper?

Sweden’s not in the gold-medal game either, but they are a darn good hockey team. They have so much skill and speed. It will be a tough task for the Americans today. Here’s what Kevin Allen of USA Today tweeted about Keith Allain’s thoughts on Sweden:

@kausatoday USA Coach Keith Allain’s on Swedish team he faces in bronze medal game: “I think they are the best team in the tournament to be honest.”

The Tre Kornar beat Canada in the preliminary round to earn a bye into the semis and were stunned by the Russians in overtime. This is going to be an extremely upset team today. It’s something the Americans will have to get past and be the team with more fire and more energy.

The U.S. defense is really going to have to regroup after a pretty rough go against Canada because they’ll have all they can handle with Sweden’s skilled forwards. Patrick Cehlin has been outstanding for this Swedish team, with a team-best six points (4g-2a). Calle Jarnkrok has also been solid for Team Sweden with five points.

The Swedes also boast a very gifted defensive corps including projected top-3 pick in 2011, Adam Larsson. The big defenseman, that has drawn Lidstrom comparisons, struggled early in the tournament, but was mostly brilliant in the semifinal loss to Russia. He has four points (1g-3a) and a plus-3 rating for the tournament. Tim Erixon and Fredrik Styrman have also been solid on the blue line, with a combined plus-9 rating.

In net, the Swedes go with Robin Lehner, who has had an up and down tournament, but mostly up. He shut out Russia in the prelims, but had a really rough time against Canada, despite the win. Some of the goals let up in that Canada game were just awful. Still, this is a guy with NHL experience (Ottawa Senators) and incredible ability. He has a 2.77 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. The U.S. will have to try and rattle him early if they’re going to be successful. It won’t be easy.

Back to the boys in the Red, White and Blue:

I had forgotten about this until I read Miguel Rodriguez’s piece in the Buffalo News:

The United States’ dream of winning a World Junior Hockey Championship gold medal on home ice is over, but Team USA still has a chance to do some things it has never done in this IIHF event.

The Americans have never won medals back-to-back years in the tournament. They’ve never earned the honor of standing on their own blue line after a game and receiving a medal of any color in their four previous turns as the tournament’s host.

This is the kind of motivating factor that Keith Allain can use for his team. There’s pride, there’s a chance to leave with something around your neck, but there’s also a chance to make history. Right, Keith?

“I would love to see the guys that medaled last year be the first group to win multiple medals,” U.S. coach Keith Allain said. “Our guys are excited to play and we want to go out there and beat Sweden and win a bronze medal.”

Outside of the chance to make history, the biggest thing that the U.S. has to do heading into today’s match-up is remember who they are playing for. The crest on that jersey represents not only themselves and their country, but the guys who have been there before and the guys who have yet to come. Chris Kreider told Billy Jaffe in his post-game on-ice interview that the U.S. had to go out there and win it for next year’s guys. I had to think about it for a while. What exactly did that mean?

I can’t get inside Kreider’s head, but what I think it means that its to set a bit of an example. It’s to show resiliency in the face of bitter defeat. If this year’s team can do that, it says “we’re still fighting.” Next year’s guys can carry the torch from that and strive to be better. If these guys didn’t quit when a lot of other teams would, how could next year’s team quit at any point of next year’s tournament? The veterans who will be part of next year’s team can lead with a little bit of pride for having been a medalist at the World Junior Championship.

Jack Campbell will get the nod in net, unsurprisingly. I don’t know if anyone took the loss harder than he did, despite the fact that he was an absolute beast in that Canada game. Many of his teammates’ comments post-game were how bad they felt to not give Campbell any help. I have no reason to believe Campbell won’t perform today, but this is new territory. He hasn’t played in a third-place game. There is pressure to win a medal here, and when Campbell is under pressure, he’s at his best.

The bronze-medal game also gives a few guys that have been disappointing during this tournament a chance for some amount of redemption. Jerry D’Amigo has two points in this year’s WJC. He had 12 last year. As Brad Schlossman tweeted, perhaps it was not having Derek Stepan as a linemate. That probably had a lot to do with it, but D’Amigo needed to be better. With today being his last chance to throw on the USA jersey at a World Junior Championship, he’s got to bring it. I think he can and will.

There’s a lot of pressure on the captain, too. Knowing John Ramage, he doesn’t want to be the captain of a team that couldn’t medal. He’s going to have to show the leadership and poise he’s shown throughout the tournament and keep his mates motivated. There can’t be any let down. If there is, its certainly not going to be coming from the man wearing the C.

Today’s key to victory:

– Play for the jersey

No amount of game planning will matter if the players don’t show up. Playing with pride and passion is the order of the day.

Writing a preview of a bronze-medal game isn’t as fun as writing one for the title bout, but its still an important hockey game and important to cover it as such. There’s a lot on the line for both teams tonight in addition to the medal. Most importantly, its pride. A loss in the semis was embarrassing. No medal is worse.

We’ll be back after this afternoon’s contest to recap the action, then tomorrow I will have a postmortem on the entire 2011 World Junior Championship. Highs, lows… all that stuff. I’ll also give you an idea of what you can expect from the United States of Hockey now that the World Juniors are over.

Until then, here are your pre-game links:

USAHockey.com has a piece on the importance of rebounding after the loss to Canada.

Shawn Roarke over at NHL.com writes about both teams still having something to play for, even if its not what they came for.

USCHO.com’s Jim Connelly writes that now isn’t the time for dwelling on what happened against Canada for the U.S. players.

Not bronze-medal oriented, but The Buffalo News’s Mike Harrington had a rather awkward exchange with Team Canada head coach Dave Cameron that Harrington just had to vent about. I don’t blame Mike for the frustration, but I’m hardly surprised by Cameron’s reaction.

Lastly, maybe to you this game doesn’t mean much. Maybe its not as exciting or alluring as the gold-medal game would have been (and still is, even with Canada and Russia playing)… You’re American, right? I’m American. So for ole time’s sake, the Hulkster returns. Enjoy the game, everyone!

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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