Pure gold for USA

U18: Third title in five years for hosts; Rajala shines for Finns

20.04.2009
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Urban Plains Center Fargo North Dakota USA

Team USA celebrates its gold medal victory over Russia. Photo: Matthew Manor/IIHF-HHOF Images.

FARGO-MOORHEAD, USA – The USA trounced Russia 5-0 to capture gold at the 2009 IIHF World U18 Championship at the Urban Plains Center on Sunday. Earlier, Finland claimed bronze with a comeback 5-4 shootout win over Canada.

USA – Russia 5-0 (2-0, 1-0, 2-0)

For the future IIHF World Championship participants, Olympians, and NHL stars on this year's American U18 team, it simply doesn't get much better right now than blanking Russia in a winner-take-all situation on home ice. Call it a superpower smackdown.

It was the host team's fourth World U18 gold medal. The others came in 2002, 2005, and 2006. The USA has won a medal at the last six straight tournaments, an unprecedented achievement.

Goalie Jack Campbell got his second shutout of the tournament as the USA convincingly outshot Russia 43-17 in front of an overjoyed sellout crowd of 4,923. With the win, the Ron Rolston-coached squad avenged their only loss of an otherwise perfect tournament, a 6-5 Preliminary Round-closing defeat against Russia on April 14.

"Tonight was a culmination of two years of hard work for many of our players," said Rolston. "They sacrificed for each other and they became a family. There is no better way to end the season, and I am really happy for our players."

Cam Fowler, Matt Nieto, William Wrenn, Chris Brown, and Ryan Bourque scored for the USA, while Drew Shore added three assists.

Russia, which beat the Americans for gold in 2004 and 2007, settled for silver for the second straight year. Russia's all-time U18 record versus the Americans now stands at eight wins and three losses. The Russians have also been shut out by a North American team in the championship game two years running, falling 8-0 to Canada in Kazan in 2008.

The victory was both sweet and poignant for the residents of Fargo and Moorhead, neighbours on the North Dakota-Minnesota border, who have had to stave off the threat of flooding from the Red River in recent weeks.

Just 2:06 in, Cam Fowler delighted the partisan fans by opening the scoring for the Americans with a power play goal, a screened wrister assisted by Drew Shore. Halfway through the period, Matt Nieto beat Russia's Igor Bobkov to make it 2-0 USA.

The Russians took three straight minor penalties to close out the first, but the Americans couldn't cash in again with the man advantage. Nonetheless, it was a true blitz for the host team, which outshot Russia 14-5 in the opening 20 minutes.

And Russia would pay for taking a fourth consecutive minor. At 1:55 of the second period, William Wrenn kept the USA's momentum going with another Shore-assisted power play goal, the one-timer making it 3-0. Although the Americans didn't add any more goals in this period, they once again outshot Russia by an almost identical 14-4 margin.

In the third period, goals 50 seconds apart by Chris Brown and Ryan Bourque killed Russia's dreams of a comeback. A cluster of penalties rounded out the action.

The gold medal triumph was also a testament to the success of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. All but one of the American players (defenceman Philip Samuelsson) spent this season with the US National Under-18 or Under-17 Team.

Canada – Finland 4-5 (3-1, 1-1, 0-2, 0-0, 0-1)

On the strength of shootout goals by Toni Rajala and Teemu Pulkkinen, Finland earned its first World U18 medal since 2006's silver.

Canada entered this tournament without ever having captured a U18 bronze, and that streak remains intact. It was a disappointing ending for the 2008 champions, who had a 4-1 lead over Finland in the second period and let it slip away.

"We were practising [the shootout] several times, but they won the coin toss and shot first and scored," said Canadian head coach Mike Johnston. "That puts the other team back on their heels."

In regulation time, Dylan Olsen, Zack Kassian, Landon Ferraro, and Peter Holland scored for Canada. Toni Rajala had a pair for Finland, and Janne Kumpulainen and Joni Karjalainen also scored. Rajala, who made it a hat trick with his game-deciding shootout goal, finished as the overall tournament scoring leader with 19 points in six games.

Shots on goal favoured Finland 57-33.

Canada entered this game with the tournament's best power play percentage, having gone 10-for-27, and that skill paid off early. Dylan Olsen opened the scoring on the power play with a high wrister through traffic that beat Finnish goalie Joni Ortio glove side at 5:34.

But the Finns responded with the tying goal just 31 seconds later. With the Finns forechecking down low, Janne Kumpulainen got credit when Canadian defenceman Taylor Doherty inadvertently swept the puck past netminder Michael Zador into his own net.

Canada's first-period forecheck started to take a toll. Finland turned the puck over several times deep in its own zone, leading to multiple bona fide Canadian chances.

Canada broke the game open with two goals in 27 seconds. First, Ryan O'Reilly sprang Zack Kassian loose through the neutral zone with a beautiful backhand pass, and Kassian made no mistake on the breakaway, beating Ortio at 12:29. Then at 12:52, Landon Ferraro, who has been nursing shoulder injuries through this tournament, grabbed the puck in the left faceoff circle and fired a high one home to make it 3-1.

In the second period, the teams traded opportunities, with Canada dominating mid-period and the Finns coming on strong later. Canada went up 4-1 when the Finns couldn't clear the puck out of their zone and Ferraro set up an unobstructed Peter Holland in front of the net at 15:58. A Canadian victory now seemed certain.

But Finland simply refused to quit. With 1:20 left in the period, Rajala capitalized on an Olsen giveaway right in front of the Canadian cage, sweeping the puck past Zador's right pad to make it 4-2.

Early in the third period, the Finns drew to within one goal on the power play. Finnish captain Sami Vatanen spectacularly rushed down left wing and slid a cross-crease pass to Joni Karjalainen, who made no mistake at 4:35.

The Finns started taking the body against Canada, sensing their chance. Dylan Olsen took an untimely delay-of-game penalty for throwing the puck out of his zone, which put Finland on a 5-on-3 power play, and Toni Rajala promptly scored on a one-timer from the right faceoff circle to tie it up at 4-4.

The Finns continued to carry the play with their speed and shiftiness through the remainder of regulation time. With under three minutes left, Zador made a great pad save on Rajala, who rushed to the net and got set up by Teemu Pulkkinen. Then it was off to extra time.

In the first minute of overtime, Ortio made a brilliant save on O'Reilly, who took a drop pass from Cody Eakin and tried to deke out the Finnish netminder. But after that, Finland dominated, and Rajala and Granlund were ever-dangerous. Rajala took a pass from Granlund and pulled a spinnerama move in front of Zador with under four minutes left in OT, zinging the puck into the goalie's pads.

Since 10 minutes of 4-on-4 play settled nothing, the shootout ensued.

Finland won the right to shoot first, and it unfolded as follows (according to the IIHF game-winning shots procedure, in which three different shooters from each team take alternate shots until a decisive goal is scored--and if the game is still tied after three shots by each team, the GWS continues with a tie-break shootout by one player of each team, with the shooting order reversed):

Round 1: FIN, Toni Rajala – goal, blocker side. CAN, John McFarland – deke, missed.

Round 2: FIN, Teemu Pulkkinen – goal, five-hole. CAN, Ryan O'Reilly – shot, Ortio save.

Although Canada didn't accomplish its golden goal, its performance was still a credit to development programs in the motherland of hockey. The Canadians were the tournament's least-penalized squad, and brought well-coordinated team play and solid goaltending.

Perhaps the brightest indicator for the future of Finnish hockey that emerged in this tournament was the presence of Toni Rajala, Teemu Pulkkinen, and Mikael Granlund among the top 10 scorers. Finland has emerged as a goaltending factory in recent years, but has generally lacked the top-end offence it would need to win gold at the IIHF World Championships or Olympics. That might be changing with these exciting young guns.

LUCAS AYKROYD
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