LAPPEENRANTA – In a clash between arguably the world’s top two youth development programs, the United States ended Sweden’s gold medal hopes for the fifth straight year, winning the IIHF U18 World Championship semi-final game 4-1.
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“They were hungrier around the net, they took their shots and were able to score while we weren’t able to,” said team captain Gustaf Franzen. “We had a lot of power plays which we didn’t convert, unfortunately for us but that’s hockey.”
Sweden, the top scoring team going into the game, got on the board first 2:39 into the opening period. A shot from the point by William Nylander was stopped by Alexander Nedeljkovic, but the U.S. goaltender gave up a big rebound to Gustaf Franzen in the slot for the game’s first goal.
Tre Kronor's only lead of the game lasted for all of 32 seconds. Sweden turned the puck over trying to get into the USA zone, and on the ensuing rush Kyle Connor was able to pass the puck off to Auston Matthews before being taken out by the Swedish defence. Matthews made no mistake and tied the game up with a low wristshot.
Both goaltenders settled down after giving up the first two goals and played well through the rest of the period, punctuated with a great save by Nedeljkovic on Adrian Kempe a two-on-one.
The USA got the game winner just under eight minutes into the second period. Ryan Hitchcock pounced on a rebound coughed up by Linus Soderstrom following a shot from Noah Hanifin to go up 2-1.
Then in the third a great forechecking effort by Dylan Larkin and Ryan Hitchcock gave the U.S. the insurance goal. Both players chased the puck into the Swedish zone and overpowered the lone Swedish defender, allowing Larkin to get in front of the net and score. Jack Eichel scored on the empty netter to seal the win.
“They scored one goal but I feel we were all over them the entire game,” said USA captain Louis Belpedio. “(Larkin’s) goal was huge for us, he’s a guy who comes up big in games like this.”
The semi-final victory means that Team USA will make its sixth straight trip to the U18 gold medal game. The Americans have won more gold medals nthan any country in the 15-year history of this tournament with seven. Sunday night will tell if either Canada or the Czech Republic will be able to stop them from getting their eighth.
“We’re gonna stick to our game plan like we did today,” said Belpedio. “Whoever it is we’re going to bring it to them and hopefully win that gold.”