Another year, another USA-Sweden match-up in the gold-medal game at the IIHF Men’s World Under-18 Championship. For the third consecutive year, these two countries will square off for U18 supremacy. In the previous two meetings, the U.S. bested the Swedes. However, most seem to believe that Sweden has the edge this year, with a few folks even calling them the favorites.
On paper, there’s no question that Sweden looks better. With elite NHL prospects like Filip Forsberg, Sebastian Collberg, Hampus Lindholm, Ludwig Bystrom and a host of others, the Swedish lineup is a scary one.
That said, the U.S. has been a little more battle tested through the tournament and appears to be getting stronger with each game. Sweden had a relatively easy bracket, cruising to the bye while out-scoring opponents 20-4 in four games. The U.S. had a bit of a tougher road, particularly having to beat Canada in back-to-back games (no U.S. team had ever done that before at the U18 or U20 level), first to earn the bye and second to go to the gold-medal game.
Now it comes down to a pair of teams that have had similar success at the tournament. Despite Sweden’s star power, the two teams have put up eerily similar numbers in all facets of the game. It is truly a match-up between the tournament’s two best teams.
Coming up after the jump, an in-depth look at the gold-medal game match-up (which airs live on FASTHockey.com at 10 a.m. EDT)
Behind the Numbers
The U.S. and Sweden rank first and second in many statistical categories. Sweden, however led the tournament in goals for with 27 in just five games. The U.S. posted 20 goals. Sweden has scored on 13 percent of the shots they’ve taken in the tournament so far.
Sweden has the tournament’s best power-play as well, operating at a 34.6 percent clip, with nine power-play markers on 26 opportunities. The U.S., meanwhile ranks third, converting on 28 percent of its advantages, with seven power-play tallies.
Again, it’s Sweden leading the tournament in another category, with the stingiest penalty killing at the U18 Worlds. Having only allowed two power-play goals, the Swedes have a sparkling 90 percent PK-rate. Team USA has also only allowed two power-play goals in the tournament and is killing penalties at an 88.9 percent rate, good for second in the tournament.
These two squads are also the least penalized at the tournament, with the U.S. only accruing 48 minutes in penalties. Sweden has spent 62 minutes in the box throughout the tournament.
The U.S., however, has had the most fierce defense and goaltending in the tournament. Team USA has allowed just four goals all tournament (all to Canada), averaging 0.80 goals-against per game. The goaltending has combined for a .962 save percentage, also tops at the tournament. Sweden is second in both categories, giving up an average of 1.40 goals-per-game and boasting a .951 save percentage.
Sweden boasts two of the tournament’s leading scorers in Sebastian Collberg (4g-5a) and and Alexander Wennberg (3g-6a), who both have posted nine points in tournament play. Gustav Possler has eight points (4g-4a), while Filip Forsberg leads the team and is tied for the tournament lead with five goals. Goaltender Oscar Dansk is right behind Team USA’s Collin Olson in goaltending statistics, with a 4-0-0-0 record, 1.50 goals-against average and .951 saver percentage.
Seth Jones (3g-4a) and Matt Lane (3g-3a) are tied for the U.S. lead with seven points apiece. Lane, Jones and Quentin Shore have paced the U.S. with three goals each. Collin Olson has put up a sparkling 1.00 goals-against average and .955 save percentage, to go along with two shutouts and a 4-0-0-0 record to lead the tournament in all categories.
While the Swedes have more skill and a lot of big names, the U.S. defense might be the key to the whole game. If it continues to play the way it has, that group can shut down anyone. It’s as strong an American defensive group as I’ve seen at this tournament, 1-through-7.
These two squads met prior to the tournament in an exhibition game. Sweden came out on top, 3-2, despite a very strong effort from the U.S. The pair also met at the 2012 U18 Five Nations, with Sweden once again coming out on top, 4-2.
Those back-to-back wins for Sweden might be advantageous for the U.S. actually. The American coaches obviously have a good book on the Swedes now and should be able to game-plan appropriately. Meanwhile, Sweden has the confidence of back-to-back wins, but with the way the U.S. has played lately, the Swedes could be looking at an entirely different opponent.
There are so many different ways this game can go, with the quality of these opponents. No matter what, it will be a thrilling contest between a pair of teams that have developed a pretty strong rivalry at this event over the last two years.
Players to Watch
Filip Forsberg — There are quite a few Draft rankings that suggest Forsberg will be a top-five pick in the next draft. With five goals in the tournament, he’s living up to the hype. He’s also got U18 experience, having been part of the gold-medal game loss last year. Forsberg also has experienced the joy of winning gold, when he did so as the youngest player for Sweden at the World Junior Championship. Forsberg has a good 6-2 frame and killer instinct around the net. The U.S. will have a tough time slowing him down, but will have to try as he can be a catalyst for Sweden’s attack.
Seth Jones — Jones has been the best defenseman in this tournament, even though it is likely Canada’s Matt Dumba will win the directorate award due to his high point-production. Jones has simply shut every opponent down in this tournament. He logs major minutes and provides tremendous leadership in a variety of ways. This will be Jones’ last twirl at the U18 World Championship after picking up gold last year at the event. He’d love nothing more than to close out his NTDP career with a matching medal.
Sebastian Collberg — Collberg is likely a high first-rounder in this year’s draft. Despite lacking Forsberg’s size, Collberg may be the more skilled of the two. He has tremendous on-ice vision and shiftiness. With nine points, he’s tied for the tournament lead. He will be another deadly asset the U.S. has to find a way to contain.
Matt Lane — Lane has been Team USA’s most consistent forward in this tournament. His speed and grit have come in handy for Team USA’s aggressive forechecking style. Lane has seven points, which is tied with Jones for the team lead. If he’s able to establish his game early, he’ll give the Swedish D a lot of trouble.
Ludwig Bystrom — Another potential first-rounder on this Sweden team, Bystrom has been a solid defenseman in the tournament. Despite just one assist and a plus-2 rating, there’s a lot to like about Bystrom. He doesn’t have overwhelming size, but skates well and has good hockey sense.
Nic Kerdiles — Kerdiles has had an interesting tournament. He got off to a strong start scoring in the first two games. Kerdiles has four points in the tournament so far and will need to continue to push the offensive pace. He’s shown good speed and a nose for those loose pucks. Kerdiles will have to play a hard-nosed style and use his size in today’s match-up.
Oscar Dansk — The Swedish netminder has the ability to steal games. That’s probably what makes this Sweden outfit scarier than any of the previous ones. His strong presence in net will be that extra push for Sweden defensively. He’s posted good stats and has a lot of international experience. The former Shattuck-St. Mary’s product knows many of the American players and would love nothing more than to grab some bragging rights.
Collin Olson — While he’s gotten a lot of support from his D, Olson has made a lot of the saves the team needed him to make. With only four goals allowed all tournament, Olson is more than ready to be the backstop for this U.S. outfit. Team USA has gotten strong goaltending in each of the last four events and Olson has filled in just as well as any of the previous netminders. While goaltending may have been a concern coming into the tournament, it certainly isn’t anymore. This will be a big one for Olson.
Jacob Trouba — Team USA will want to continue establishing that physical presence and Trouba is just the guy to do it. He’s been a bruising defenseman during this tournament and has done some positive things offensively as well. As Team USA’s highest-rated prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft, today will be a great test for Trouba. He scored a goal in last year’s gold-medal game against Sweden and may need to help contribute once again. He’ll see a lot more ice than he did in the last gold-medal match-up. This could be a shining moment for Trouba in his last game before the NHL Draft.
This should be a dazzling game of hockey today at 4 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT). You won’t want to miss any of the action, and you don’t have to! You can catch it all right on FASTHockey.com, beginning shortly before 10 a.m. Hope you’ll tune in for the final broadcast from Brno.