Getting to the championship game at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge is a grind. Seven games in eight days and little margin for error in the preliminary round make this an incredibly tough tournament to win. In fact, the U.S. and Russia, the two teams that will battle for the title tonight, just barely made it out of the preliminary round.
The pair of Group B opponents were part of a three-way tie with Canada-Pacific, however a complicated tie-breaker, allowed both Russia and the U.S. to advance, sending Pacific to the fifth-place game.
Then it was an incredible semifinal round. The U.S. needed a shootout to defeat Sweden, 2-1. Russia came back to force overtime against Canada-Ontario, and won in the extra frame, 4-3. Now the U.S. and Russia get a rematch from a hotly contested preliminary round game, in which Russia handed the U.S. its only defeat of the tournament, 3-2.
Coming up after a jump, a full preview of tonight’s contest as well as players you should be watching on both sides tonight.
When the puck drops at 7 p.m. EST in Windsor’s WFCU Center, you’ve got two opponents that probably don’t care too much for one another, but also a pair of opponents with familiarity.
The U.S. National Under-17 Team, which is made up almost entirely of players from the National Team Development Program, and Russia’s U17 squad will meet for the fourth time this season.
The two foes squared off in Russia in November at the 2011 Under-17 Four Nations Cup twice, once in exhibition and once in the tournament. Team USA won both of those contests (6-2, 5-0, respectively). While Russia’s current roster has some key differences from the one in November, including a new goaltender, that type of familiarity typically breeds higher tensions.
Russia has an improved club from that November meeting, with a high-speed offense and stereotypical Russian skill. Goaltender Nikita Serebryakov, who was not on that November Russian squad, has been outstanding in his four appearances for Team Russia, posting a 2.41 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.
The U.S. has gotten solid goaltending of its own from Hunter Miska and Thatcher Demko. Miska has gotten the heavier work load, posting a 3-0-0-1 record, 2.51 GAA and .879 save percentage, but in two appearances the big San Diego-native Demko has looked really steady. Demko was between the pipes in the 2-1 shootout victory over Sweden in the semi and did not allow a goal in that shootout.
Team USA and Russia both have a lot of skill and speed at the forward position. That puts a lot of pressure on the defense for each team in this game.
The U.S. has gotten really solid D for much of the tournament. Players like Will Butcher, Steven Santini and Keaton Thompson give the U.S. a very versatile, yet dependable blue line. The speed on the back end allows the U.S. to skate with the speedy Russian squad and match them step for step. The only way to slow down the attack is matching Russia’s speed and owning the front of the net in the defensive zone and this USA squad can do both.
In the 3-2 loss to Russia, the U.S. fell behind early and ended up having to play catch-up all game. The American defense will have to limit mistakes early to prevent a similar scenario. However, the U.S. defensive corps has plenty of guys that can support offensively, so it will be important to keep pressure on the Russians. If the U.S. wants to keep sustained pressure in the offensive zone, they’ll need a great deal of support from the guys at the blue line.
Team USA’s forwards have offered consistent scoring and have a lot of speed that keeps their opponents honest defensively.
J.T. Compher is tied for third in tournament scoring with nine points. His strong, gritty style has allowed him to get to the net, but for a guy that plays the game as hard as Compher does, he has tremendous finish. He’ll need to bring that hard-nosed style to the table tonight.
Anthony Louis scored the shootout winner for Team USA with a slick release from the slot that caught the Swedish goaltender unawares. He’s been doing damage in regulation, too, with seven points including three goals. The diminutive forward just creates offense with his speed and skill. There’s a lot of ability in his small frame.
Evan Allen has also been having himself a heck of a World U17 Challenge. His five goals lead the U.S., and each goal has been a significant one. He’s shown some great skill and speed and offers the U.S. a consistent goal-scoring threat.
The incredible development of Hudson Fasching has continued as well. The big forward from Appley Valley, Minn., scored two big goals in the crucial win over Canada-Pacific. He has four overall at the tournament.
The U.S. needs their big guns firing on all cylinders in the most important game of the tournament. It’s the seventh game in eight days, so fatigue could be a factor. It’s going to be a battle.
Grigori Dikushin, who’s been playing this season with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, is Russia’s leading scorer at the tournament with nine points (4g-5a). He’s just one of a litany of forwards that can create offense at the drop of a hat.
Russia also boasts little Sergei Tolchinski who can be a magician with the puck. He has three goals, but one of them came against the U.S. in the 3-2 Russian win in the preliminary round just 43 seconds into the game. It set the tone for the rest of the contest.
There’s also Ivan Barbashev, who has four goals in the tournament and Ivan Nichushkin also has five points.
The one thing you can always say about a Russian national team is that they are unpredictable. You never know what kind of effort you’ll get out of them, but typically in big games like these, they find a way to compete. Another thing you can always count on is that the team is going to be skilled and if you let them get a jump on you, they can score in bunches.
The U.S. is going to have to play responsibly, avoid the penalty box and play the game its played all tournament long to come out a champion tonight.
This is a tournament the U.S. has had some pretty good success in, having won three times (2001, 2002 and 2010). This is the eighth championship game the U.S. will be a part of at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, so this team has a chance to get the United States to .500 in gold-medal games at this event.
Bob Duff of the Windsor Star tweeted this interesting note today:
6th straight year and 16th time in 17 tourneys that at least one of either USA or ONT in gold-medal game.
ONT is Canada-Ontario, if you didn’t catch that. That’s a pretty significant stretch of North American dominance at this tournament. It’s quite surprising that Ontario didn’t make it to the championship game, as it seems like they’re always there, but that speaks to the way Russia played Tuesday.
Russia has not won the U17 Challenge since 2000, with a roster that included Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk. So expect a very motivated Team Russia tonight to break this 12-year title drought.
No matter the final result, this should be an exciting game to watch. This is undoubtedly the most important event in these young players’ lives, so both teams should be very competitive. It’s also a great glimpse of the World Junior stars of tomorrow and next year’s NHL Draft class. It will be streamed live and free on FASTHockey.com.
I’ll have a full recap of this championship game Thursday on United States of Hockey.