Here are 4 ways this final can make history.
1) This matchup is once in a blue moon
At the Olympics, IIHF World Championships, and World Juniors, Russia and Sweden have won more medals than any other European nations. But surprisingly, they’ve never faced each other before in a U18 final. And since the IIHF implemented the playoff system in the 1990’s, these rivals have only met twice in other gold medal games.
Andrei Nikolishin scored the winner when Russia defeated Sweden 3-1 in the 1993 IIHF World Championship final in Munich. Mika Zibanejad’s overtime goal gave the Swedes a 1-0 victory over Russia in the 2012 World Junior final in Calgary.
2) Home ice ain’t no picnic
If the Swedes triumph at Ornskoldsvik’s Fjallraven Center, they’ll join a very exclusive club. This is the 21st time the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship has taken place, but only once has the home team won gold. It wasn’t in Europe.
We’re talking about the 2009 U.S. team, which blanked Russia 5-0 in front of 4,923 fans at the Urban Plains Center in Fargo, North Dakota. Cam Fowler, who has since played 620 NHL games with the Anaheim Ducks, scored the winning goal just 2:09 in. The future 2010 World Junior gold medalist and 2014 Olympian was also named Best Defenceman and a tournament all-star.
Incidentally, Sweden’s Max Wahlgren has a double stake in home ice. The 17-year-old forward is the only Modo Hockey prospect on this roster.
3) These captains have special challenges
If Swedish captain Tobias Bjornfot hoists the championship trophy, the 18-year-old defenceman will do something that eluded two of the greatest Swedish defencemen ever.
Niklas Kronwall wore the “C” for the inaugural 1999 Swedish U18 team. Even though he was part of the first “double gold” run ever with the 2006 Olympic and World Championship teams and also won the 2008 Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings, he settled for U18 silver. And Victor Hedman, an Ornskoldsvik native, captained the 2008 U18 team. Yet while he captured gold at the 2017 Worlds and a Norris Trophy in 2018 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, his 2008 U18 team came fourth.
Meanwhile, Russian captain Vasili Podkolzin faces a different challenge. He led August’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Edmonton with eight goals. However, the 17-year-old forward has gone goalless at these U18 Worlds. Perhaps Podkolzin can draw inspiration from a Russian legend who dominated the U18 the year he was born. In 2001, Ilya Kovalchuk led Russia to gold with 11 goals and 15 points and was named Best Forward.
However, that’s not the Kovalchuk example that Podkolzin could find most beneficial right now. Let’s fast-forward to the 2008 Worlds. People sometimes forget that Kovalchuk also went goalless before the gold medal game against host Canada in Quebec City. However, there he exploded with two goals, including the 5-4 overtime winner, and that’s what the great winger is remembered for. If Podkolzin steps up offensively versus Sweden on Sunday, nobody will care that he was blanked before.
4) There’s a curious IIHF symmetry here
The Russians defeated Germany 4-3 in overtime in the 2018 Olympic final in PyeongChang, Korea. Sweden beat Switzerland 3-2 in a shootout in the 2018 IIHF World Championship final in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Do you see the pattern? 2019 marks the first time in IIHF history that a U18 final has featured the two nations who won Olympic gold and World Championship gold the year before.
Listed with the winning nation first, the previous relevant U18 final pairings were Finland-Sweden (1999), Canada-Slovakia (2003), Russia-U.S. (2007), U.S.-Sweden (2011), and U.S.-Finland (2015).