Photo: Team USA’s Reid Boucher enjoys his country’s third straight gold medal at the U18 WJC (courtesy Chapin Landvogt/HF)
All season long, the United States was considered the team to beat in the world of U18 hockey. The two-time defending world champions were not seriously challenged in the international tournaments they engaged in during the season or during the group stage at this year’s U18 World Championship in Crimmitschau, Germany. In the last two games, their mettle was finally tested.
After fending off a third-period comeback by Canada and winning Saturday’s semifinal in overtime, the United States had to stage one of its own in Sunday’s final, erasing a 3-1 deficit and beating Sweden 4-3 in overtime to win its third consecutive gold medal.
For much of the first two periods, the Americans didn’t seem to be playing at their best, particularly in the second. Though the shots were fairly even, the Swedes seemed to be skating better and getting the better quality scoring chances.
“We weren’t tired. I don’t know, actually,” said Reid Boucher, trying to explain the team’s start. “We just had to battle through it; battle through adversity.”
Filip Forsberg opened the scoring for Sweden in the fourth minute by beating John Gibson five-hole, but the US tied it up with only eight seconds remaining in the opening period, when Jacob Trouba’s blast from the point on the power play found the back of the net behind Niklas Lundstrom.
In the second, Albin Blomqvist with a high shot from just inside the blueline and Gustav Bjorklund with a nice shot just inside the post gave Sweden a commanding 3-1 lead. But heading into the last regulation period of the season for these players, one had the feeling that this US team that was built to win this tournament was not finished yet, and indeed they came out with a superb effort in the third period.
Early in the third, Connor Murphy got his team back into it by firing a wrist shot into the top corner, though he couldn’t remember it afterward. “I can’t even remember it. How did I score?” he said after the game, deliriously.
With sudden life, the US began pressing for the equalizer, but their efforts were sidetracked when Tyler Biggs was sent off for tripping with 6:05 on the clock. After killing that penalty, they went back to work. With 1:29 left in regulation time, Reid Boucher sent a shot along the ice toward the Sweden goal that beat Lundstrom to tie the score.
“I just hopped over the boards and J.T. Miller gave me a nice pass and I beat the ‘d’ wide,” said Boucher. “I just threw the puck on net hoping to get a rebound and it went in.”
With the momentum now on their side, the Americans owned the overtime period, out-shooting Sweden 8-1. After getting the equalizer, Boucher nearly won it when he was alone in front with the puck, but Lundstrom stopped his backhander.
Four minutes into the extra period, Rocco Grimaldi cut in toward the goal with the puck and he was brought down by Oscar Klefborn, resulting in a holding call. For the next two minutes, the US buzzed all around the Sweden zone, forcing Lundmark to make a couple of quality saves. Just as the penalty expired, Connor Murphy, who already had two points in the game, got the puck at the point. His first shot was blocked, but he recovered it and fired a bullet off the crossbar and in for the winner.
“I just knew we had a four-on-three, we just had to get some shots on it,” Murphy said after the game. “Any shot’s a good shot. So when it got blocked I just knew the guy was coming at me and I didn’t want him to get a fast break the other way, so I threw it on net. I tried to go high because the goalie was already on his way down and I just got enough on it for it to go in. It was amazing.”
US goalie John Gibson made 28 saves in the game, including several big ones when his team was down by a couple goals and couldn’t afford to fall further behind. He was rewarded for his efforts throughout the tournament by being named the top goaltender by the IIHF.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to think about it right now. I’ve just got a gold medal around my neck,” said Gibson “At the end of the day we won. That’s all that matters.”
Gibson was named the top goaltender in this tournament.
Earlier in the day, Russia defeated Canada 6-4 to win the bronze medal.
For two periods, it was a run-and-gun game in which the offensive stars for each team displayed their talents. Russia was led offensively by Nail Yakupov and Nikita Kucherov, who together accounted for five of Russia‘s goals in the game. The speed of Kucherov was evident throughout the game as he made the Canadian defense pay for its gambles. He scored twice, picked up an assist, and had a few other chances that he wasn’t able to finish off. Kucherov led the tournament with 21 points in 7 games and was named the tournament’s outstanding forward.
For Canada, the duo of Ryan Murray and Ryan Murphy on the blueline led much of Canada’s attack with shots from the point, both on the power play and at even strength. In this game, all four of Canada’s goals originated with a point shot from one of those two. Murphy was in on all of his team’s goals, scoring once and adding three helpers. The top-ranked player in the tournament for the 2011 NHL Draft only helped his standing with his performance in Germany. He was named the tournament’s best defenseman.
With the two-goal lead, Russia tightened up the game in the third period, which was largely uneventful until Canada began pressing in the final minutes.
In what seemed like a repeat of their late comeback against the US in the semifinal, Canada called a timeout and pulled their goalie with three minutes left, trailing by a pair of goals. With the extra man Brett Ritchie tipped in Murphy’s point shot to close the gap.
That’s where the comeback ended, however. Yakupov competed his hat trick in the dying seconds, clinching the bronze medal for Russia.
“We worked hard,” was how Yakupov described the team’s victory. “We obviously wanted the gold, but we still had strong motivation to win a medal. We played a smart game in the third period, not rushing everywhere and we didn’t open up any space for the Canadians. That paid off."
"I am very disappointed. We played hard to the end, but the second period totally killed us,” Murphy explained afterward. “We allowed shorthanded goals again. We wanted too much to score on the power plays and a skilled team like Russia took advantage of it and capitalized on that."
The US will probably be considered favorites to win a fourth straight title in Switzerland in 2012, but Sweden, Russia, Canada, and a few others will be right on their heels, looking to dethrone them.