It started in August with 45 players in Lake Placid, N.Y. The road to the World Junior Championship gold-medal game then took a more direct turn only a month ago as USA Hockey narrowed down its list of candidates for the U.S. National Junior Team to 27. The final roster was decided three days into the tournament, with 23 players chosen for a specific reason: To win World Junior gold.
All of that build up has led up to Saturday, where the U.S. will have a chance of claiming its third gold medal at the World Junior Championship and second in four years. Standing in its way, however, is a formidable foe. Sweden is the defending gold medalist and has not yet lost in this World Junior Championship.
The U.S. will meet Sweden Saturday at 8 a.m. ET. The gold-medal game airs live on NHL Network, with a live stream on NHL.com in the U.S. It will also air on TSN in Canada.
It will be a battle between two teams that are very familiar with each other. Sweden also had a team in August in Lake Placid, competing in exhibitions against U.S. candidates. They met in the pre-tournament competition in Helsinki as well. It goes further back even. In each of the last three World Under-18 Championships, the U.S. has taken on Sweden for gold. The vast majority of players on both teams were part of at least one of those three games, each of which the U.S. has won.
There’s a budding rivalry between these two hockey countries and now it gets its biggest stage yet.
Coming up after the jump an in-depth look at Team USA, Sweden, the match-up, Team USA’s projected lineup and more.
Team USA Update
The U.S. players are probably feeling pretty good about themselves after that 5-1 trouncing of heavily favored Canada. However, they can’t be completely happy just yet. There’s still one more game to go and Sweden is a more than capable opponent.
Team USA is coming into the gold-medal game off of one of the most complete performances you’ll ever see at the World Juniors. Every facet of the game clicked for the U.S. and it paid off with a big win.
The biggest things the U.S. needed to work on coming into that one was taking fewer penalties and getting more bodies to the net. They succeeded in both of those categories.
The one area that sputtered a bit against Canada, however, was the power play, which failed to capitalize on any of its six opportunities after a five-PPG game against the Czechs. It’s not a major concern considering success in the rest of the tournament, but the U.S. will have to take advantage of the opportunities Sweden gives them.
Over the last two games with the same lineup, the U.S. has outscored its opponents 12-1. It appears that after many different attempts with different combos, Phil Housley has found the perfect mix for this team to play the style he expects.
Coming into the tournament, one of the biggest concerns regarding Team USA was the lack of scoring depth in the lineup. The alterations to the line combos has essentially made that concern moot. The U.S. has scored more goals than any other team in the tournament (with the exception of Finland, mopping up in the relegation round) with 31. Ten of those goals have come from the defense, so that support from the back end has more than made up for any deficiencies there may have been among the scorers.
As important as scoring goals will be in the upcoming game, stopping Sweden’s gifted group of forwards will be the big challenge. The modified defensive pairings that the U.S. used against the Czechs and Canada worked just about perfectly.
Since they were put together, Seth Jones and Jake McCabe have been Team USA’s best pairing in both zones. They should see major, major minutes against Sweden with two legitimate scoring lines, both of which could be a top unit on any team in the tournament.
Reuniting Patrick Sieloff with Jacob Trouba seems to have paid off as well. Both are comfortable on the points with each other and will ensure that Team USA is the most physical team on the ice when the situation calls for it. Housley can spot in Shayne Gostisbehere with Trouba when there’s a need to be more offensive-minded, too.
With the skill Sweden has up front, John Gibson will have to continue his utterly stellar play. He is in the midst of one of the greatest single-tournament performances by an American goaltender in the history of the WJC. He has a chance to finish with U.S. records in save percentage and goals-against average. He’s as locked in as ever and will have to continue to be the difference maker.
In my mind, he’s the MVP of this team. Even with all the goals Team USA has scored in the last several games, it’s those timely saves that Housley has taken to calling “momentum saves” that have kept the U.S. moving forward. One last time, he’ll have to be the best player on the ice for Team USA.
— The U.S. is second in scoring efficiency now behind Finland, which has scored 19 goals across two games in the relegation round. The U.S. has 31 goals scored and a team shooting percentage of 12.7.
— After going scoreless on the PP against Canada, the U.S. tumbled from first to third with a 30.8 percent success rate. Team USA’s 12 power-play goals are tied with Finland for most in the tournament.
— The American penalty kill is by far the tournament’s best having only allowed two goals at a disadvantage. Team USA has killed 92 percent of its 25 power plays against.
— No goaltending has been stingier than Team USA’s. With a team save percentage (which is all John Gibson save for 20 minutes for Jon Gillies) of a staggering .956 and goals-against average of 1.34, no other team really comes close. The U.S. has only allowed eight goals in the tournament. Sweden is next closest with 10 allowed in one fewer game.
— Despite Finland’s goal parade during the relegation round, Johnny Gaudreau remains the tournament’s leading goal scorer with seven. His nine points are fifth most in the tournament. Here’s the complete leader board (IIHF).
— John Gibson has played more minutes than any other goaltender in the tournament and leads the WJC in both save percentage and goals-against average (IIHF). Gibson’s also contributed offensively with two assists in tournament play.
— Team USA boasts the top three scoring defensemen in the tournament. Jacob Trouba leads in goals (4) and points (8), while Seth Jones is first in assists (6) and second in points (7), Jake McCabe is third with six points (IIHF).
— U.S. defenseman Connor Murphy has had some serious success against Sweden in the past. He has actually scored three huge goals against the Tre Kronor in a pair of big tournaments. In 2010, Murphy scored the game-winning goal in the Ivan Hlinka U18 Tournament’s semifinal, on an end-to-end rush, finished off by a wraparound. In the 2011 World Under-18 Championship, Murphy scored twice in the gold-medal game including the overtime game winner. Just for good measure, Murphy also scored in the pre-tournament game against Sweden in Helsinki.
Coming into the tournament, Sweden had far more questions to answer than Team USA even did. Before the tournament even started, the Swedes knew they’d be without their top three defensemen and best forward.
Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom, a pair of first-round draft picks and the best two 1993-born defensemen in Sweden’s pool, were injured during the season and both were unavailable to compete. Then the Ottawa Senators decided that it would not allow Mika Zibanejad leave the Binghamton Senators, though he had also been dealing with an illness that cost him playing time. Then, as if cursed, just before the tournament, Hampus Lindholm, selected sixth overall by Anaheim last draft, went down with a concussion.
The scariest thing about all that? It didn’t matter. Sweden went 3-1-0-0 in preliminary-round play and beat Russia in a shoot out to make it to its second consecutive gold-medal game.
Despite losing three top defensemen and the player that scored the gold-medal winning goal against Russia last year, the Swedes had no trouble getting to this point.
Of all the teams the U.S. has faced, Sweden is likely the best equipped to match Team USA’s skating stride-for-stride. The Tre Kronor boasts a bevy of highly-skilled forwards which will give the U.S. defense its biggest challenge to date. There’s NHL first-rounders and several players that are certain to go within the first 30 this year.
Plain and simple, this is going to be the most skilled team the U.S. has seen yet. Sweden’s firepower up front has potential to be devastating if given space. They capitalize on mistakes and need very little to create offensively.
This group is well schooled in international competition, with many of the players having played at the World Under-18 Championship or in at least one Four Nations/Five Nations tournament. They know how to win at this level.
Obviously coming off of last year’s gold medal game, one of the best hockey games I’ve ever seen, and the big semifinal shootout win over Russia, this team is battle tested.
The one downside for Sweden is that it hasn’t faced the same type of adversity the U.S. has within the 2013 tournament. Sometimes feeling the sting of defeat, like the U.S. had to endure twice, helps wake a team up and shifts the mindset. That said, Sweden’s road to the gold game has been anything but a cake walk.
The Swedes opened the tournament with a 4-1 win over the Czech Republic before running into a motivated Swiss team that forced a shootout. Sweden eventually won that won and followed it up with another victory against Latvia, 5-1. The Tre Kronor then met its biggest rival Finland, which was facing elimination. In a game that was closer than the score would indicate, Sweden dispatched the Finns with a 7-4 victory, earning the bye and sending Finland to relegation.
The Swedes then controlled most of the game against Russia in the semifinal. A late breakdown at the net front led to the game-tying goal off the stick of Mikhail Grigorenko. Sebastian Collberg’s shoot out goal was a tad filthy, and Niklas Lundstrom was terrific between the pipes, thwarting all three of Russia’s elite shooters.
All four forward lines have good scoring potential for Sweden. Eight players have four or more points, so they have balance. There’s a bunch of mobility on the back end as well and each defenseman has the ability to move the puck quickly.
Perhaps Sweden’s trickiest line is the one that includes Sebastian Collberg (4g-2a–6pts), Emil Molin (2g-4a–6) and potential top-five pick Elias Lindholm (2g-2a–4). There’s so much skill with this group that it should challenge the U.S. a great deal. This might be the line Team USA wants to send its Grind Line out against, but there’s still a lot more where that came from.
The group including Filip Forsberg, William Karlsson and Filip Sandberg also has high potential to put up points and get behind the D. This group has a little more size than the previous line and can create headaches with their speed and ability. But, wait! There’s more!
Sweden’s third group includes Alex Wennberg, Rickard Rackell and Victor Arvidsson. This line has been productive with Arvidsson collecting four goals and Rackell posting five assists in the tournament so far.
On defense, Tom Nilsson and Mikael Vikstrand have been Sweden’s top pairing and can do a little bit of everything. Both have been able to fill the sizable void left by Brodin, Klefbom and Lindholm. Also playing well so far is draft-eligible Robert Hagg, who was Lindholm’s injury replacement. There’s a lot of ability on this back end to aid the transition, which can be deadly for the Swedes.
In net, Niklas Lundstrom has played in three of the five Sweden games and has been solid. He ranks third in the tournament with a .946 save percentage and has posted a 1.45 goals-against average which trails only John Gibson.
This team is as good as any the Americans have seen so far and it’s going to require another effort like that in the Canadian game to win.
Sweden’s player stats through five games (IIHF).
Here’s a look at the highlights from Sweden’s semi-final win over Russia.
About the Match-Up
Now that the U.S. seems to have solved its goal-scoring issues with 21 in its last three games, it will have to continue its solid defensive play against a team that has four lines that can score. Playing the match-ups will be key, but the U.S. is the away team for this game, meaning Sweden has the last change.
The U.S. likely would want to get a heavy dose of the Grind Line against Sebastian Collberg’s unit. The more they can get that match-up the better. Cole Bardreau’s trio has done incredibly well against other top lines in this tournament.
That said, Housley can have a little more faith in the rest of his forwards due to the incredible play of the U.S. defense. A lot has been made of Team USA’s scoring out of the D corps, so it’s easy to forget just how good Team USA’s defense has been. They’ve limited a lot of quality chances and the ones they have given up have mostly been stopped by John Gibson.
There shouldn’t be too much deviation from what made the U.S. successful against Canada. A big factor in what the U.S. will be able to accomplish is how it pressures the Swedish defense. The D is a point of weakness (not a huge weakness, mind you) for Sweden. If the U.S. can forecheck as it did against Canada, it’s going to force the Swedish D to make quicker decisions and maybe get a little more nervous back there.
Keeping sustained pressure in the offensive zone means less time for Sweden to get their own offense going. Good movement in the offensive zone and not trying to force too much will help a lot. Sweden can pounce in transition, so avoiding turnovers in the offensive zone will be of huge importance.
The whole tournament hasn’t been very physical, but the U.S. has a chance to out-muscle Sweden overall. So while body checking might not be the priority, winning battles along the boards and establishing that all-important net-front presence will be the big keys in the physical portions of the game.
Special teams is going to be huge in this one as well. Expect the game to be called a little more loosely than you’ve seen so far in this tournament, but not too much. The U.S. has to limit its chances agaisnt Sweden’s power play which ranks first in the tournament, with a 36.7% success rate (11-30). Team USA will also have to take advantages of power plays as this is an area they can create some separation.
Sweden was all over Russia at the start of that game, but somewhat faded a little late. A good, quick start for Team USA will help set the tone for the game. The U.S. has had success in each of its last three contests by forcing the opposition to play the game at the pace the U.S. wants to play at. Sweden can match that pace, but they may have a harder time matching Team USA’s intensity.
The Americans have to play responsible defensively, with forwards getting back every shift. A good team defense can help slow the vaunted Swedish attack.
The U.S. has only allowed eight goals all tournament, so they have proven they can shut down just about anyone. The biggest challenge awaits Saturday.
This has all the makings of an instant classic that you won’t want to miss. Sleep in Sunday instead.
Team USA’s Projected Lineup vs. Sweden
It’s been the same the last two games and it doesn’t look like there’s any need to change a thing. This appears to be the right mix.
13 Johnny Gaudreau – 10 J.T. Miller – 26 Jimmy Vesey
15 Alex Galchenyuk – 7 Sean Kuraly – 16 Riley Barber
20 Blake Pietila – 18 Cole Bardreau – 21 Ryan Hartman
23 Rocco Grimaldi – 25 Vince Trocheck – 22 Tyler Biggs
12 Mario Lucia
19 Jake McCabe – 3 Seth Jones
27 Patrick Sieloff – 8 Jacob Trouba
6 Mike Reilly – 5 Connor Murphy
14 Shayne Gostisbehere
35 John Gibson
30 Jon Gillies
Scratched: Garret Sparks
Three Keys for Team USA
Team Defense — In order to shut down Sweden, everyone is going to have to get involved in the D zone. There’s so much scoring depth for the Swedes that you never quite know who to shut down. With Sweden controlling the match-ups more with the final change, it doesn’t matter what a player’s role is, he will have to get back. Team USA has some great defenseman, but getting some more bodies back there will help slow Sweden a bit.
Aggressive Forecheck — Team USA has to put pressure on Sweden’s D. Forcing the issue with their speed and giving those good puck-movers less time to find the outlet is going to be huge. This should lead to turnovers that the U.S. will have to capitalize on. Part of this will have to be winning the battles along the boards and being the tougher team below the goal line. Team USA has the capability to give the D fits here and they’ll have to. The one caution is that they’ll have to be aggressive without over-pursuing. Too many bodies deep could help make for an easier transition for Sweden, which could be bad with their finishing ability.
Finish — A win against Canada may breed some complacency, but team USA hasn’t won anything yet. They came for gold and now have the opportunity to grab it. Knowing how to step on the throat and finish the job is what these players will need to do. For a good portion of the U.S. roster, they’ve played against Sweden in the World U18s and have beaten many of these guys before in a gold-medal game. The U.S. will need to match, if not surpass, its effort from Canada to beat the defending gold medalists. We’ll find out pretty quickly if they have that effort.
— Tournament scoring leaders through Friday (IIHF).
— Mike Morreale previews USA-Sweden (NHL.com)
— Kevin Allen with another great USA preview (USA Today)
— “They’re a great team and we expect the most from them,” Seth Jones Jones told USAHockey.com in their preview of the big game. “This will be my third gold medal game against Sweden.” (USAHockey.com)
— The U.S. feels the momentum despite the day of rest today. (NHL.com)
— Justin Bourne has some interesting, detailed analysis on some of Team USA’s goals against Canada. (Backhand Shelf)
— John Gibson is highlighted in Rob Rossi’s story about Pittsburgh-area players on Team USA. (TribLive)
— Jake McCabe talks about the win over Canada and his role as team captain (Buffalo News) *As a side note, I’ve heard rave reviews about McCabe’s leadership in this tournament.
Lastly, in their own words, Team USA looks ahead to Saturday…
As always, you can expect a full breakdown of Team USA’s game here after the results are known Saturday. You can also following along on Twitter for live in-game analysis.