He's number one with a bullet! Captain Jack Hughes shone with a hat trick and an assist in a 6-0 quarter-final win as the U.S. ended Finland’s one-year reign as U18 world champions. The Americans will face Russia in Saturday's semi-finals.
"For me, it was good to beat the Finns," said Hughes. "It was really motivating when we got to play them and get a good game in the quarters."
The victory opens the door for the U.S. to medal for a record-setting 16th straight year. The Americans have won seven out of the last 10 gold medals. Last year, they defeated Russia 5-1 in the quarter-final.
U.S. coach John Wroblewski cautioned against overconfidence after his team beat Russia 6-3 in the group stage, and pointed back to a 8-4 Russian win at the Five Nations Tournament in Sochi in February.
"We expect a better effort from [Russia]," said Wroblewski. "We saw their best game in February, and we're going to have to beat that best game. That was a suffocating game and a group that was flying to spots and very predictable in their offensive effort and quite efficient at it, if I remember correctly. We're going to have our hands full."
The ultra-nifty Hughes now leads the tournament with 16 points, just five shy of Nikita Kucherov's single-tournament 2011 record (21). With 28 career points, he has surpassed previous U.S. all-time leader Phil Kessel (26). Informed that he's just three points behind Ovechkin's all-time best total of 31, Hughes joked: "He's probably got 30 goals on 31 points!"
Cole Caufield got his tournament-leading 12th goal, just two back of Ovechkin's single-tournament 2002 record (14). Matthew Beniers also scored for the Americans, and Trevor Zegras racked up four assists.
U.S. goalie Spencer Knight earned his first shutout of the tournament, but Finnish goalie Roope Taponen faced chances of higher quality. Shots favored the U.S. 35-21.
"We can't blame Roope about any goal," said red-eyed Finnish captain Iivari Rasanen. "Of course, USA, like Caufield's shot, that was a sick shot to the upper corner. And two breakaways...we can't blame Roope about that either."
The skillful, opportunistic Americans left the Finns frustrated and outskated. Finland goes home empty-handed from a U18 World Championship for the first time since 2014.
The Americans cruised through the preliminary round with four straight wins. The Finns stumbled, losing their first three games before roaring to life with a 12-0 pounding of Switzerland to avoid the relegation round. And it didn't take long to expose the gap between the two sides on Thursday at Fjallraven Center.
At 6:25, the U.S. opened the scoring. Defenceman Alex Vlasic sent a gorgeous stretch pass to Beniers, who busted through the Finnish defence and whipped it past Taponen. Beniers, the only 2002-born player on this year’s U.S. roster, is coming off a successful rookie NTDP season, and won't turn 17 till November.
"His 200-foot game has been strong," Wroblewski said of Beniers. "We were waiting for him to pop a little bit offensively. With a player of his calibre, it was only a matter of time. The timing couldn't have been better."
The Americans kept coming. Zegras circled out front and Hughes tipped his feed through a surprised Taponen at 11:06. When necessary, Knight barred the door, including an excellent right pad stop on Mikko Petman on a Finnish 2-on-1 rush. A late-period power play proved thoroughly ineffective for Finland.
"Bad decisions with the puck," Rasanen said. "Just not playing smart enough."
Early in the second period, Taponen made a nice glove save on Hughes, but he couldn’t stop the prospective #1 overall NHL Draft pick when he broke in alone and went five-hole at 4:56 for a 3-0 lead.
The Finns blew a 3-0 lead in their opener against Canada and couldn't come back from a 3-0 hole against Belarus. This three-goal deficit wouldn't be any kinder to them.
"Once we got the lead, I thought our guys played very maturely as well," Wroblewski noted. "That's frustrating if you're down in a game and the other team's playing a strong, diligent game."
With Suomi struggling with the man advantage near the midway mark, Taponen foiled Judd Caulfield on a clearcut shorthanded breakaway. Taponen then stopped Owen Lindmark on another break with 2:29 left in the middle frame, but a penalty shot was awarded due to defenceman Ville Heinola's interference. Caufield took the attempt but couldn't outwit the goalie with his dangles.
With just 50 seconds left in the middle frame, Hughes sealed the deal. With the Finns floundering defensively, he accepted a backhanded feed from a falling Zegras and roofed home his third goal of the game and eighth of the tournament.
In the third period, Caufield put some icing on the American cake when he scored with a super one-timer, set up by Hughes, off the rush at 12:06.
"He's got an unreal shot to start with," Hughes said. "If he's not scoring, he's pissed. That's kind of his mojo. He always wants to score."
Just 47 seconds later, Brink, from the faceoff circle, beat Taponen stick side to round out the scoring at 6-0.
This was an unexpected quarter-final matchup. These two perennial powerhouses clashed in three of the last four gold medal games. The U.S. prevailed in 2015 and 2017, and Finland, which also beat Sweden for gold in 2016, prevailed last year in Chelyabinsk. Now, the Americans are just two wins away from another championship.
In terms of performing in front of NHL GMs and scouts, Hughes said: "I'm not too concerned, really. Every team's kind of watched us play 20 times by now. Teams know the players that they're going to pick by now, probably. So I mean, for me, all I have to do is worry about playing and trying to win a gold medal for USA Hockey."