Host Sweden scored two first-period goals in 24 seconds and hung tough for a 4-2 quarter-final win over the Czech Republic. Next up: Canada in the semi-finals.
"I think it means a lot, especially here on home ice in front of all the fans," said Sweden's Lucas Raymond. "I think we've got a great shot. It's going to be fun."
Thursday was an exciting night to wear a blue-and-yellow jersey in Ornskoldsvik. Goalie Hugo Alnefelt stepped up as shots favored the Czechs 34-28. Alexander Holtz, Elmer Soderblom, Albin Grewe and Oscar Bjerselius scored for Sweden.
Alnefelt praised his teammates: "They made my job easier. It's much easier for me to be awake back there when I see the boys working hard in front of me."
Marcel Barinka and Radek Muzik replied for the Czechs. It's the fifth straight year their U18 squad will return home without a medal. They captured silver in 2014, and previously garnered three bronzes (2002, 2004, 2006).
"We tried to push, but discipline was the key to this game," said Czech assistant captain Martin Has after his team conceded two power play goals. "We had too many penalties, stupid penalties, that I think made [the difference] in the game. "
Sweden’s quest for its first gold medal in tournament history is full steam ahead. The Smakronorna captured silver in 2016 and bronze last year. Even if the host nation isn't as heavily favored as, say, the U.S., it's an exciting position to be in. Everything is up for grabs now.
Heading into Saturday's semi-final, Canada, which edged underdog Latvia 3-1 in the quarter-final, has an all-time U18 record of nine wins and seven losses versus Sweden.
"It's going to be a tight game, probably a lot of skating and shooting and hard battles," Raymond predicted.
Patience is a Swedish hockey hallmark, and coach Magnus Havelid’s team maintained its composure after failing to score on an early power play with good zone pressure.
The Swedes capitalized on the second man advantage at 9:55. Holtz picked up a bounce off the boards, circled into the left faceoff circle with time and space, and zinged one over Czech starter Lukas Parik’s glove.
Faster than you could say "Fjallraven," it was 2-0. On a odd-man rush, Zion Nybeck slid it over to Soderblom, and he made no mistake from close range for his first goal of these U18 Worlds at 10:19.Of allowing those quick goals, Has said: "It's not good, but it happens in hockey. This is hockey. So you have to get your mind back again and work hard."
Alnefelt did his job admirably, showing off his fast feet as the Czechs vied to draw blood near the 13-minute mark of the first period.
In the second period, Grewe capitalized with just two seconds left in a man advantage, grabbing a loose puck off a faceoff in the Czech zone and lifting it past Parik at 1:27. Looking to change up the momentum, head coach Alois Hadamczik changed netminders, inserting Jan Bednar.
The Czechs took a while to get going, even with Grewe taking back-to-back minors. But Barinka finally got them on the board when he barged to the net and banged in a rebound at 13:33.
With Hadamczik's boys looking dangerous on a late second-period power play, Alnefelt preserved his team's two-goal edge. The PA blasted Alice Cooper's "He's Back (The Man Behind The Mask)," and even though that song came out 15 years before the goalie was born, it was on point. The Czechs outshot Sweden 19-11 in the middle frame.
Raymond praised Alnefelt, who now owns a 92.5 save percentage and 2.67 GAA: "He was huge. He's a great goalie and has competed and played well for us all tournament."
Early in the third period, the Czechs cut the deficit to 3-2. Martin Lang skated down left wing, pulled up inside the Swedish blue line, and found Muzik streaking to the net. He waited for Alnefelt to go down and backhanded the puck over him at 3:46.
The Czechs never waved the white flag, but with Bednar pulled for the extra attacker, Bjerselius capped off Sweden's win with an empty-netter -- his third goal of this tournament -- at 19:10.
"I think we have gotten better and better," Nybeck said. "So we must just keep going. We know we're good when we play the way we can play."
Reflecting back on these U18 Worlds, Has said: "We didn't start the first game very well [a 4-3 loss to Belarus]. That was an awful game from us. But I think then we came back up high and we played well against Canada. We didn't win, but it was a good game. Today we thought we were going to be better than we were."