BRECLAV, Czech Republic – The United States defeated the Czech Republic 5-3 in Friday’s second semi-final at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. That set up a gold medal clash with Canada, which beat Russia 3-1 earlier. It’s another tough but exciting challenge for the Americans.
The Americans have only won this tournament once, back in 2003. Their last medal, a silver, came in 2010. That contrasts with the U.S.’s success at the IIHF World U18 Championship, where they’ve won seven of the last 12 gold medals.
Powerhouse Canada, meanwhile, is seeking its sixth straight Ivan Hlinka gold medal. The Canadians benefit from having access to all their top U18 talent here, whereas some players are still involved in the Canadian major junior playoffs during the World U18 tournament in April.
The Czechs will face Russia for bronze. The Czechs haven’t won a medal at this tournament since 2005’s silver, while Russia’s last medal was 2011’s silver.
After a 3-2 overtime loss to the Finns in their opener, the Americans have steadily improved. They beat Russia 4-2 and Slovakia 5-2 to top Group B in pool play.
Ryan Wagner scored the winner for the Americans with 11:14 left, getting behind the Czech defenders and beating Czech goalie Vit Vanecek with a nifty move.
U.S. coach Bob Corkum, who scored four goals for the 1987 U.S. World Junior team and went on to play 720 NHL games, has guided the Americans to their first Ivan Hlinka final since 2010.
"The guys really dug down deep to get the win," said Corkum. "It was really hot and humid in the arena, but they battled through everything and got the job done when it mattered. Now it's important for them to get rest and fluids with the quick turnaround, and then we'll get ready for tomorrow."
The Czechs drew first blood at 4:04 when Pavel Zacha converted a one-timer on the power play. But the Americans struck back halfway through the period, with Jake Wahlin fooling Vanecek with a short-side wrister. Just after a power play expired, Nick Schmaltz made it 2-1 for the Americans with a shot through traffic that squeaked over the line at 18:10.
The teams opened it up in the second period. Czech sniper Jakub Vrana, who played five games last season for Linköping of the Swedish Hockey League, got another power play goal at 8:09. But less than a minute later, Schmaltz restored the U.S.’s lead, scoring unassisted after a Czech turnover.
Refusing to wilt, the Czechs made it 3-3 with 40 seconds left in the middle stanza. With the partisan crowd in a drum-banging frenzy, Zacha earned his second of the night off a nice behind-the-net set-up from Vaclav Karabacek. But that was as close as they’d get. Pulling Vanecek for the extra attacker simply allowed Cody Milan to make it 5-3 into a wide-open net with six seconds remaining.
Things are trending upward for the U.S. youth movement. For instance, twenty-five percent of the players selected in June’s NHL entry draft were American, and the U.S. has won two of the last four World Juniors (2010, 2013). One of many bright Stars-and-Stripes prospects is Paul Bittner, who scored against Finland and Slovakia in the round-robin.
The 16-year-old Minnesota-born winger scored 12 goals and 11 assists in 45 games for the Portland Winterhawks as a Western Hockey League rookie this season. Bittner, who towers over opponents at 195 cm and 94 kg, went pointless in 19 playoff games as the Winterhawks marched to the WHL championship.
He has two fellow Portland forwards here with him in the Czech Republic, Keegan Iverson and Dominic Turgeon. They all bring valuable tournament experience. The Hawks, headlined by World Junior stars such as defenceman Seth Jones (United States) and forward Ty Rattie, lost 6-4 to the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the 2013 Memorial Cup final.
In the earlier semi-final in Piestany, Slovakia, both luck and timing were on Canada’s side as it grabbed a 2-0 first-period lead over Russia thanks to two Kingston Frontenacs teammates. Spencer Watson dipsy-doodled his way to Canada’s first goal just 39 seconds in. At 19:20, Sam Bennett scored the eventual game-winner for the defending champs in a goal-mouth scramble.
The Russians cut the deficit to 2-1 with just under five minutes left in the second period. On a power play, Damir Sharipzyanov beat Canadian goalie Julio Billa high to the glove side. In a strange twist, a lightning strike during a local thunderstorm wound up resetting the arena scoreboard.
Russia couldn’t tie it up despite enjoying an extended 5-on-3 man advantage in the third period. Canada’s Clark Bishop sealed the deal with a late empty-netter. Canada outshot Russia 33-13.
“I think we just keep pushing ahead,” said Spencer Watson. “As a team now we’re playing great, and I think we’ll have a great chance in the gold medal game.”
– with files from USAHockey.com and HlinkaMemorial.com