For the second straight year, the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team will take on Sweden in the gold-medal game at the IIHF World Men’s Under-18 Championship. Last year’s tilt between the two was as entertaining a game as I’ve seen. Expect nothing less later today.
Coming up after the jump, a complete USA-Sweden preview.
Team USA is coming off the emotional high of beating archrival Canada in overtime. While I’m sure the players are excited, they’ll have to forget about last night and focus on the job at hand. Beating Canada wasn’t the goal coming into the tournament, winning the gold medal was, and still is.
Team Sweden downed Russia in a tight game yesterday, winning 3-1 (with an empty-netter). There was some controversy in the game as Russia had a goal disallowed due to a dislodged net. It probably was the right call, based on the rule, but it was awful close.
The Swedes play the style we come to expect. There’s a lot of high-end skill, mobile defenseman and solid goaltending. That’s about as basic as it can get.
Sweden has gotten a lot of production out of top 2011 draft prospect Mika Zibanejad. He’s posted a team-best eight points (4g-4a) and makes things happen on the ice with his tremendous stick-handling and vision.
Victor Rask has also been a threat for Sweden. His size and strength give him a big advantage over his opponents, but he’s lacked the finish to put up big points.
Sweden’s goaltender, Niklas Lundstrom, took over the tournament goaltending lead with his sparkling 1.81 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He was a big factor in the 3-1 win over Russia, but he has some holes. Lundstrom sits deep in his net and goes down quickly. He’s not all that different from Canada’s Malcolm Subban in that regard.
The top defenseman for Sweden without a doubt is Oscar Klefbom. He’s really fun to watch, but probably a nightmare to play against for opponents. Klefbom has looked like a pretty good all-around defenseman, who can contribute offensively without sacrificing any defense. He’s got a rocket shot and skates really well.
These two teams are quite familiar with each other. In the last two years, the 1993-borns for Team USA and Sweden have met three times. The first meeting was a classic.
In the 2010 World U17 Challenge semifinals, the U.S. had a very similar night to the one they experienced against Canada last night. Team USA lost a three-goal lead in the third and ended up falling behind in regulation. J.T. Miller scored an absolute beauty with just 20 seconds remaining and Reid Boucher scored the OT winner to advance the U.S. U17s to the championship game.
At the Under-18 Five Nations Cup this year, Sweden handed the U.S. 1993s their first loss against a 93-born opponent in a pre-tournament exhibition. The two squared off again in the tournament’s opening game. Team USA won that contest, 6-2, and ended up winning the tournament title. Rocco Grimaldi had four points to lead the U.S. in that game.
The familiarity between the two opponents is interesting. It adds something a little different to this gold-medal game. Two of the three games have been close, so expect another tight contest today.
For the U.S., it needs to keep its forward momentum going in this tournament. Currently 4-1-0-0 (W-OTW-OTL-L), Team USA has won big some games and found a way to win in others. When this team is playing it’s best, opponents will have a real hard time. There’s no better time for their best game than the gold-medal game.
Team USA will have to play the style that has led them to this point. High speed, high energy and going to the net. Sweden can out-skill the U.S. team, but it’s going to take more than skill to beat the Americans. The hardest-working team will often find a way to win the hockey game, and today should be no different.
Sweden is more physical than previous Tre Kronar teams from the past. However, despite the physicality, you don’t see a ton of Swedish forwards crashing the net hard. That perimeter game probably won’t be enough against a U.S. squad that plays well in the defensive zone.
Last night, Canada was on fire on the power play. Team USA will run into a Swedish team that ranks seventh in tournament play on the PP, while the U.S. is third on the PK. Staying out of the box will be key for the U.S., because I think five-on-five the U.S. has the better squad.
John Gibson had his toughest game last night, but didn’t give anything away at even-strength. He made 38 saves, including several big ones. If the Swedes are swarming, the big goaltender will need to keep it slow with good rebound control and playing a simple game as he often does. He’s a big factor for the U.S. in any game it plays.
The line of Rocco Grimaldi, J.T. Miller and Reid Boucher have continued their torrent scoring pace and have been a force to be reckoned with offensively. Miller leads the way with 11 points, while Boucher has scored a team-best seven goals. If this line keeps it up, it should be a good day for Team USA.
Grimaldi has posted seven points, but hasn’t been the dominant force we’ve seen in the past. Could this be the breakout night we’ve been waiting for? It just may be.
The U.S. also got a great night out of Travis Boyd, Nic Kerdiles and Tyler Biggs. Expect that line to be a factor in this game, as it has looked pretty solid in the last two games in particular. Biggs got the game-winner last night and that could give him added confidence going forward. That should be scary for any opponent.
The defense has been steady all tournament. Ron Rolston’s seven blueliners have been rolling pretty well. There’s a little bit of everything on the backend. Robbie Russo has been contributing offensively all tournament, while Connor Murphy might be Team USA’s top shutdown Dman.
Additionally, Barret Kaib has been impressive all tournament long. He’s blocking shots, taking the body and making really smart plays. He came in pretty low on the depth chart and his played his way into top-four minutes and has been a key defender on the PK.
If the U.S. gets the same type of game from its defense, it should be able to win the game.
This has been a fun tournament to watch and be a part of. It’ll be bittersweet for me when it ends tonight. However, it will probably be more bittersweet for the 18 1993-born players on the 22-man roster. For the last two years, they’ve played together at the vastly challenging National Team Development Program, spending countless hours together. Long road trips, multiple international tournaments, gruelling workouts and challenging practices have bonded these guys.
They only get 60 more minutes together on the ice. You better believe they’ll do everything they can to make it count.
Keys to Victory for Team USA vs. Sweden
— Stay out of the penalty box… seriously.
— Compete for 60 minutes.
— Play with passion and pride.
Should the U.S. win tonight, it will mark a historic moment for a U.S. National Team. No other U.S. team at any level has won three consecutive medals at an IIHF World Championship. Additionaly, no team, from any country, has won three consecutive World Under-18 Championships. I don’t know if the players care much about that, but us media types do. History is kind of cool, right?
This is a telling stat: Ron Rolston has been the head coach four times at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship. Ron Rolston has taken Team USA to the gold medal game four times at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship. That’s a pretty successful track record. Rolston led the U.S. to gold in 2005 and 2009, and a silver in 2007. How has a major D-I college or even a pro outfit not picked this guy up? That’s a post for another day.
Win or lose, the U.S. has secured its eighth consecutive medal at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship. The streak has gone like this: 2004 – Silver; 2005 – Gold; 2006 – Gold; 2007 – Silver; 2008 – Bronze; 2009 – Gold; 2010 – Gold.
The U.S. is also in search of it’s unprecedented sixth gold medal at the event. Team USA won it’s first gold in 2002. The other ones are listed above.
The U.S. success at this event is to be admired. The hope is that it will translate more to the World Junior and Men’s Senior levels in the years to come. While the U.S. has struggled in those events, there has been vast improvement since the beginning of the World Under-18 Championship.
Hundreds of American players have had to chance to represent their country in a World Championship event at the age of 17 or younger. Not only that, but they’ve tasted international success. That can’t be bad for development.
The U.S. has a chance to add to that storied history tonight.
Due to the incredibly short turnaround from the end of the game to the time we depart for the Berlin airport, I probably won’t have much of a recap right away. However, check back on Tuesday for a complete tournament recap, followed on Thursday with a player-by-player evaluation from the tournament.
After that, we’ll switch gears to the Men’s World Championship in Slovakia and get back to pre-draft coverage, not to mention a litany of other topics we’ll cover throughout the off-season.
Thanks to all of you who have visited the blog throughout the last two weeks. We had a great month in April and my hope is that we provided some good exposure of this under-the-radar, but incredibly important tournament.
It’s been a real treat for me to cover the tournament and be able to report back to you. So thanks again for stopping by!