SASKATOON – John Carlson's goal at 4:21 of overtime lifted the United States to a thrilling 6-5 victory over Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 IIHF World U20 Championship. It was the first U.S. gold since beating Canada in the 2004 tournament, and only the second in history for the "other" North American hockey power.
The 19-year-old Washington Capitals defenceman fired a quick shot from the left side to beat Canada's Martin Jones, sparking a wild celebration by the American players, aged 18.5 years on average. (Remarkably, Carlson also scored the deciding goal against Sweden in the semis.) This was Carlson's second goal of the night.
"I kind of closed my eyes and it went in," said Carlson of his OT stunner. "It was unbelievable."
For the hosts, Carlson's winner spoiled a desperate comeback spearheaded by tournament MVP Jordan Eberle. In the style of his miraculous heroics from last year's semi-final against Russia, Eberle scored two late goals to send the game to overtime after the Americans had built up a seemingly insurmountable 5-3 lead.
"We got a comfortable lead, but Canada can do miraculous things," said American coach Dean Blais. "My initial feeling was we blew the game when they tied it up, but we caught a break and Carlson scored the goal."
"I think we were extremely fortunate to get that goal in the end," added the USA's Chris Bourque. "Obviously being up two goals in the third, we kind of let things slip away. We went in after overtime and said, 'Hey, we can do this! We can't dwell on the past, we've got to look to the future.' Carlson's one of the best D-men in the world in his age group, and for him to go down and score that goal was an unbelievable experience."
It was as wild and unpredictable of a final as anyone could have asked for. Who could have imagined that both teams' starting goalies would end up getting pulled? Similar to their 5-4 New Year's Eve shootout loss to Canada, the Americans outplayed their vaunted hosts for much of the game, but this time they got rewarded for their efforts when it meant most.
"We're an extremely fast group, and to go along with that speed, we have grit and tenacity," said Bourque. "That's a deadly combo, and it showed in this tournament."
Canada failed in its quest to win a sixth straight gold medal, which would have surpassed the record it set between 1993 and 1997, and 2005 and 2009. Canada's all-time record against the United States now stands at 27 wins, six losses, and three ties.
The result was a tribute to USA Hockey's junior development program. Seven members of the World Junior squad were on the team that won World U18 gold in 2009.
"It's huge," said the USA's Chris Kreider of the triumph in Saskatoon. "This is the biggest thing we can do for USA Hockey."
"It's a great accomplishment for the players, coaches, and management," added teammate Cam Fowler.
This was the third meeting of all time between Canada and the United States in the World Junior gold medal game. Canada won 2-0 in Switzerland in 1997, and the U.S. won 4-3 in Finland in 2004.
This was also Canada's ninth straight gold medal game (since 2002) and twelfth straight medal (since 1999) at this tournament.
Final shots favoured Canada 41-37, including a 19-8 run in the third period.
"The crowd here's always hostile and anti-American, but we got into the game, and things went our way tonight," said the USA's Jordan Schroeder.
At 4:12 of the third period, the Americans made it 4-3 when Jerry D'Amigo finished off a sweet rush. Fed by American captain Derek Stepan, he sent a high shot past Canadian starting goalie Jake Allen's blocker.
The Americans got a stroke of good luck at 6:23 when Allen bobbled the puck in front of him after a high American shoot-in by D'Amigo, enabling Stepan to waltz in and tuck a backhander past the stunned netminder from the Montreal Juniors.
It was time for a Canadian goaltending change. Out came Allen and in went Martin Jones, whose only previous tournament appearance came in a Preliminary Round 8-2 romp over Slovakia.
"It's a tough situation [to come in like that], but it's something you've got to prepare yourself for," said Jones, who plays for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen. "It's a short tournament, and things like this happen."
Canada tried to ramp up the pressure as the clock ticked down. With about six minutes left, USA netminder Jack Campbell stoned Nazem Kadri twice from the slot. A couple of minutes later, Gabriel Bourque's in-tight backhander skittered just wide of the post.
The best Canadian chance to pull within one came when the USA's Kyle Palmieri was penalized for running over Jones with four minutes to play. They took full advantage when Eberle slammed home a one-timer from the faceoff circle to Campbell's right with 2:49 left.
The flag-waving Credit Union Centre crowd of 15,171 exploded with joy, and Canada brought furious pressure to bear on the American net. With 1:35 left, Eberle created more magic, banging home a rebound to tie the game at 5-5 after Campbell made a great pad save on Ryan Ellis's point shot. Off to overtime.
"This is disappointing," said Eberle afterwards. "We came back and never gave up. We came to this tournament with the gold in mind."
What a gold medal game it was -- full of lead changes and unexpected developments from the very start. It was proof that if you're not watching World Junior hockey, you are missing out on something incredibly memorable and special.
The Canadians didn't get their first shot on goal until 2:40 of the first, but they made it count. Jordan Caron cut down the right side and fed Luke Adam, who deposited a backhand through the pads of American starter Mike Lee to give Canada a 1-0 lead.
Midway through the period, the USA's Tyler Johnson got behind the Canadian defence but failed on a deke as he was checked by Ryan Ellis, crashing into the end boards and hobbling off. Shortly afterwards, Schroeder tested Allen with a backhand on the rush.
Then the Americans found a weak spot. With 6:04 left in the first, the USA's Chris Kreider tied the game with a quick shot from the top of the left faceoff circle that beat a surprised Allen over the glove. Just 36 seconds later, Ryan Bourque came down the right side and fed Schroeder, who also beat Allen over the glove to make it 2-1 for the Americans.
"We had a couple of breakdowns and good teams capitalize on that," said Canadian defenceman Alex Pietrangelo.
The hosts didn't fold, though. At 16:03, Canada tied it back up when Greg Nemisz grabbed a loose puck on the rush and slammed it past Lee's left skate. It was Nemisz's first goal of the tournament.
Canada ran into penalty problems late in the first, as Stefan Della-Rovere hit Schroeder at centre ice and was sent off for charging. Next, Pietrangelo took a minor and misconduct for a hit from behind.
With heavy pressure early in the second period, the Americans jumped into a 3-2 lead on the power play at 1:03 when John Carlson fired a shot from the centre point that eluded Allen through traffic.
Allen fumbled yet another high glove side shot, which almost slipped behind him. But at 3:56, Canada came right back to tie it up at 3-3 when Taylor Hall's shot bobbled over Lee. At this point, the Americans were outshooting Canada 21-7, and Team USA coach Dean Blais had seen enough, yanking Lee in favour of Jack Campbell.
Despite all the guts and glory on display toward the end of regulation, this was indubitably Canada's weakest performance in a final since the '04 loss to the Americans. The goaltending, in particular, proved unequal to the task, which isn't what happened versus the Swedes in 2009, regardless of the question marks surrounding Dustin Tokarski.
"The Americans have a lot of class and are a very well-coached team," said Canadian coach Willie Desjardins. "We saw that on December 31, and they had a very good game again. We have to take our hats off to them. They did a good job. We have a lot of work to do."
It just goes to show that in international hockey you can't win every year, no matter how good you are. Not in 2010.
The Americans, of course, could be faulted for their inability to hold on to a lead in the late stages. But nobody will care about that years from now, when the exultation of John Carlson and his U.S. teammates is what will be remembered from this classic thriller on the wintry plains of Saskatchewan. They took a page out of Team Canada's book and "found a way to win."