Some might say this edition of the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team is a squad that seemed to find a way or just do enough to win. Based on it’s last two games at the 2011 IIHF World Men’s Under-18 Championship, I view this team more as one that refused to lose.
On back-to-back nights, Team USA earned overtime victories. The first night it was a three-goal comeback by Team Canada to force overtime in the semifinal. The next, it was a two-goal comeback by the U.S. to earn a shot in overtime in the championship game. Both nights, Team USA came out on top.
Check out the rest of the recap after the jump and find out what makes this year’s gold medal so impressive.
It turned out that Connor Murphy was the hero of the day in the 4-3 OT win over Sweden in the gold-medal game. Not only did he score the OT winner, but he scored Team USA’s second goal of the game to cut a two-goal deficit in half. That goal allowed the U.S. to breathe a little easier throughout the third period, knowing it needed just one more to tie it.
With just 1:29 to play in regulation, and desperation setting in, J.T. Miller sent a beautiful cross-ice pass to Reid Boucher, skated past a reeling Swedish defender and wired the puck into the lower half of the net from a tough angle.
With momentum swaying towards the U.S. all of the sudden, it looked as if perhaps this was a team of destiny.
After Oscar Klefbom, the Swedish captain, held up Rocco Grimaldi as the small centerman crashed towards the net, the U.S. was given a rare overtime power play. Already skating at 4-on-4, the U.S. would have plenty of ice to work with in a 4-on-3 situation.
Sweden’s PK looked solid early and took away a lot of chances, but as time ticked down on the power play, it happened.
Robbie Russo and Travis Boyd played a little bit of catch on the right side of the ice, looking for room. After Boyd dished it back up to Russo, the U.S. captain sent a soft feed over to Murphy at the top of the left faceoff circle.
Murphy didn’t get much on his first shot, which ended up getting blocked by a sliding Swedish penalty killer and right back to Murphy. With the goaltender already down from the previous shot, Murphy put it off the cross bar and in. Pandemonium ensued.
Taking a few steps back, the U.S. didn’t seem to have an answer for Sweden throughout the first period. Despite being grossly outplayed by Sweden in the first, the U.S. kept it tied after 20 minutes, thanks to a Jacob Trouba rocket shot on the power play with just eight seconds remaining in the period. That was a huge goal.
In the second frame, the tables slightly turned as it looked like the U.S. was carrying the play more, but couldn’t seem to find a goal. Sweden, on the other hand, ended up scoring twice in the second, despite Team USA’s improved play.
The third period really could have gone either way, with both teams playing pretty solid hockey. Team USA buried it’s two best looks at the net in the third, which is what you have to do when trailing. You have to take whatever you can get and that’s what the U.S. did.
With their backs against the wall, this U.S. team scratched and clawed its way back and earned that overtime opportunity. There was a sense that if it got to OT, it was going to be really hard to beat the American team. Sure enough, Murphy scored his goal and the U.S. got its gold.
It was a tremendous effort in the end. By no means was it a perfect game, but it was a perfect ending for Team USA.
The U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team became the first-ever U.S. National Team to win three consecutive gold medals at an IIHF World Championship event. Additionally, Team USA’s three-peat was the first for any country at the World Under-18 Championship, which began in 1999.
The U.S. U18s now own six gold medals at the World Under-18 Championship, most of any country, and extended its unprecedented medal streak to eight straight years. Team USA’s nine total medals are tied with Russia for most at the World U18s.
John Gibson was named the tournament’s best goaltender, receiving the prestigious directorate award. It is back-to-back wins for an American goaltender. Jack Campbell received the same award in 2010.
Team USA’s three best players, as selected by the team staff, were Gibson, Robbie Russo and J.T. Miller. Gibson was outstanding throughout, as already indicated by his directorate award. Russo logged a ton of minutes and took control of games from the back end for Team USA. Miller led the team with 13 point (4g-9a) and seemed to be a force for much of the tournament. I’ll have complete player-by-player evals coming Wednesday and Thursday.
The Improbable Road to Gold
While the 2011 U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team has etched itself in history, it perhaps is the most improbable to do so. I’m not alone in that thought, as Chris Dilks of Western College Hockey Blog called this team’s gold medal the most impressive of the last three.
The 1993 birth year, as a whole, was claimed to be one of the weakest in memory for the U.S. In fact, many felt the National Team Development Program was going to struggle to put a decent team together for that age group. When the team was finally assembled, it didn’t appear to have the skill, size and speed of previous NTDP squads.
Throughout the first season, the then U17s struggled mightily against its new opponents in the USHL. This season it struggled with NCAA Division I opponents. Those results did nothing to quiet the non-believers.
However, when it came to international play, no NTDP team has been better, at least by record. The 1993s, of which there were 18 on the gold-medal team this year, never lost one tournament game against its own age group. In two seasons, the team posted a 24-2 record against 1993-born international foes, with both losses coming in pre-tournament exhibition games. That’s a winning percentage of .923 overall.
During that incredible run, the team won the 2009 Under-17 Four Nations Cup, 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, 2010 Under-18 Four Nations Cup, 2011 Under-18 Five Nations Tournament and 2011 World Under-18 Championship. That’s a lot of hardware.
Clearly, the biggest of them all was the win in Crimmitschau, Germany. A gold medal to top off two years of incredible international success has to feel good for the players and coaches. Two years of being told they weren’t that good just got shoved right back in every critic’s face.
There are several factors that made this team so successful in my mind.
The first, I have to think, is coaching. Ron Rolston has been known as a guy that gets the most out of his players. This is a team that everyone thought didn’t have the talent to get it done, but they did. That’s a huge credit to both the coaching staff (including top assistant Chadd Cassidy, assistant & goaltending coach Joe Exter and graduate assistant Matt Curley), and the National Team Development Program’s structure. These players are probably the most improved I’ve seen from year one to year two in the program, at least in the four years I’ve followed it closely.
This team also had one of the top goaltending prospects around. John Gibson may have been overshadowed by Jack Campbell, but his pro prospects are probably near or equal to Campbell’s. He won the tournament’s directorate award as the best goaltender, as Campbell did last season. Having good goaltending goes a long way.
Despite the lack of skill, this team may have been one of the hardest working I’ve seen. What they lacked in skill, they made up for with dedication in the weight room and doing the hard things you have to do to win hockey games.
Team USA played a physical, fast-paced game and in many cases out-worked its opponents. That’s what it takes to play winning hockey.
The last two weeks were unforgettable for me. I was lucky enough to spend every day at the rink watching the best U18 players in the world play.
Being able to broadcast the tournament that I’ve really enjoyed covering since my USA Hockey days was a real treat for me. An honor, really.
I think people should know more about this tournament, as it is the first look at many of the best players from around North America and Europe on the international stage. So many stars have skated at the World U18s. I am so glad I was able to give you a look at what it’s all about.
While the tournament has ended, my coverage hasn’t yet. I still have a lot to get to regarding the World Under-18 Championship.
Coming up tomorrow, I’ll have a player-by-player breakdown of the U.S. goaltenders and defensemen, as well as my thoughts on a few non-American players at the tournament.
Thursday will bring the player-by-player evaluations of Team USA’s forwards and some final U18WMC thoughts.
After that, it will be back to NHL Draft preparation, the 2011 IIHF World Men’s Championship, a look at the NCAA coaching turnover this off-season and more on the Pee Wee checking debate as we near USA Hockey’s Annual Congress.
It’s great to be back!