BRNO – It’s deja-vu all over again. For the third year in a row, Sweden will attempt to unseat the three-time defending champions United States in the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship gold-medal game, and in the process claim its first ever gold medal in the competition.
The 2012 championship final, taking place in Brno, Czech Republic, will pit the tournament’s top two teams once more, as both squads won their respective groups just as in 2011. In their current campaign, both teams have gone undefeated through five games. The United States is currently in the midst of a 17-game win streak dating back to 2010, already a record in the relatively short history of the U18 world championship.
The final figures to be a clash of equals on the U18 stage, and if last year’s gold-medal game is any indication, Brno’s residents are in for a treat. In the 2011 final in Germany, the U.S. came back from a two-goal deficit in the third period to tie the game and send it into overtime. Just over six minutes into the extra period, defenceman Connor Murphy fired a shot from the blue line that went off the cross-bar and into the net to win gold for the Americans.
For Swedish captain Filip Forsberg, who played in the tournament in Germany, the loss was a huge disappointment.
“It was really tough on us, to come so close and be unable to finish the job,” said Forsberg.
Despite the fact that Forsberg has already won a gold this year as the youngest player on Sweden’s U20 team at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship, this game on Sunday is still the biggest in the 17-year-old’s life.
“This game is huge for me, because I did not play as big of a role at the under-20 as I have in this tournament,” said Forsberg. “We just need to play the way we have been all tournament and we will have a chance to bring another gold back to Sweden.”
Sweden is certainly in for its biggest challenge yet. The American team, largely composed of players from the U.S. National Team Development Program who play together all year round, has lost only two games in the past three U18 championships and has mostly dominated its opponents. The foundation of the American hockey machine this year rests on a stout defensive core, led by top prospects Jacob Trouba and captain Seth Jones, both veterans from the 2011 gold medal campaign.
While he is not taking the Swedes lightly, especially after last year’s close call, Jones is feeling confident in the ability of his team to take home gold for a fourth straight time.
“We’ve played pretty good defence throughout the tournament so far, and we just need to keep playing the way we’ve been playing for two year, keeping up a strong forecheck and taking care of things in our own zone,” said Jones.
The on-ice results are telling. So far in this tournament only Canada has been able to score any goals against the Americans, notching three in their preliminary round and one in the semi-final. Prior to the first Canada game, the U.S. had allowed zero goals in three games and was poised to break the U18 record for longest shutout sequence, set in 2006 by, you guessed it, the States. That team included current NHL stars such as Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk, and Erik Johnson.
Should the United States win on Sunday, the gold medal will be the country’s seventh in the 14-year history of the tournament, and will mark another feather in the cap for the National Team Development program.
If Sweden wins, it will be a second gold medal for Tre Kronor at a 2012 IIHF championship, to go along with gold won at the U20s in Calgary. But it will also be Sweden’s first ever gold at the men’s U18 level, and will serve as further proof of the nation’s renewed youth hockey program.
It will all come down to Sunday. Get ready Brno.
NOTE: Russia defeated Germany 4-1 in Saturday's placement game. Arseni Khatsei scored a pair of goals and earned Best Player recognition as Russia claimed fifth place in the 2012 U18 world championship, down two spots from its bronze medal finish in 2011. The loss put the Germans into sixth place in the ranking, the same result they earned playing in the top division tournament on home ice in Dresden and Crimmitschau last year.