The USA is the first team to secure a berth in the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship final following a 6-1 victory over Czechia in Saturday’s first semi-final in Landshut. Jimmy Snuggerud scored twice, with linemate Logan Cooley and defenceman Lane Hutson each drawing two assists. Isaac Howard had a goal and an assist.
Following a fifth-place finish on home ice last year, the Americans are guaranteed at least a silver medal this year, but gold is the only colour they’ve wanted all tournament long. They are 10-4 all-time in U18 final games. Their opponent this year will be either Sweden or Finland.
For Czechia, the loss is disappointing but they won’t linger on it too long as there’s still a big game tomorrow with a medal on the line. They have won four previous medals at the U18 Worlds – bronze three times and a silver in 2014 with a team coached by Jakub Petr.
When these teams met in the group stage, the Czechs led 1-0 after one period before the Americans woke up in the second, scored four straight goals and won 6-2. It was a similar story in the semi-finals, except there were five American goals in the second. While 6-2 and 6-1 losses don't look like impressive results for Czechia, they mark the only two games in the tournament so far that the US team has scored fewer than eight.
“Both games against them, we were competitive, which was a huge difference from when we played them earlier in the season,” said Czech coach Jakub Petr, referring to a game in November where the USA beat his team 10-1.
“Those guys are unbelievable,” Petr said about the Americans. “I’ve been involved in this program for 12 years and those guys are like an army. It’s always hard to play them in the second period with the long change. I called a timeout after the third goal. We tried matching lines and different things, but this year they are unbelievable.”
“I think it’s important to play with poise and no one panicked,” said U.S. head coach Adam Nightingale. “We knew we had to be disciplined and we weren’t in the first. (The Czechs) have a really good power play, they’re really well coached and I think they’ve gotten better as a team as the tournament’s gone on, but I think our guys did a really good job of resetting. I think they had confidence that we did this last time, and again we took the game over in the second period.”
When Czechia struck first in the group stage, it was Jiri Kulich as the result of the Americans being assessed two penalties on one play – one of which being a penalty shot, which he scored on. In the semi-finals, the Americans incurred two tripping minors on one play, with Kulich connecting on the two-man advantage.
The USA got the game’s first power play and got some good looks but Michael Schattinger was sharp. The Czech goalie stopped all 16 shots he faced in the opening frame, with his best save of the opening period came at even strength, when he robbed Cooley with the glove after the American star had beaten a defenceman with an inside-out move.
The Czech goal in the first period came while up two men, with both U.S. penalties coming on the same play – Cruz Lucius tripping Ales Cech from behind while there was already a penalty against Seamus Casey on delay. On the ensuing 5-on-3, Eduard Sale yet again provided the perfect tee-up for the Kulich one-timer in the slot. It was Kulich’s tournament-leading ninth goal. For Sale and defenceman Tomas Hamara, they upped their co-tournament lead in assists to eight.
“It was a 5-on-3 so we knew that we wanted to pass it to Kulich because he has a good shot, and Sale passed it pretty well,” said Hamara. “I think we had another good first period against them, as we did in the group stage. We scored the goal, which gave us the confidence, and I think we were playing really well but then they started scoring and, unfortunately, we couldn’t turn it around.”
“It wasn’t a good start,” said Hutson, whose two assists later in the game would draw him even with Sale and Hamara. “But we knew that we’re a good second-period hockey team and we came out in the second and dominated, which put us in a good spot heading into the third.”
Lucius drew the Americans even at 23:10, picking up a loose puck in the neutral zone and ripping a shot over Schnattinger’s blocker from the right wing.
It wasn’t until past the game’s midpoint that the USA finally took the lead for the first time, but Cutter Gauthier’s eventual game-winner opened the floodgates, the first of four goals in a 7:06 span. On the play, Cooley drove to the front of the net and then sent a backhand pass to Gauthier, who had a wide-open net with Schnattinger following Cooley and sliding the wrong way.
“It’s super fun to play with them,” Snuggerud said about his two linemates. “Cutter’s got a great shot, he’s a competitive kid and obviously, Cooley’s skill set is unbelievable.”
Just over two minutes later, Isaac Howard jumped on a loose puck after a Czech defenceman fell, and Frank Nazar finished the play by driving straight to the middle of the net. Then Howard scored on a breakaway just seconds after a power play had expired. Finally, Snuggerud made it 5-1 on a one-timer set up by Cooley.
“My first goal, Cools set me up pretty well on that one and I was able to get that shot off,” said Snuggerud. “The second one, it was good net presence there by (Cole Spicer and Howard) and I was able to sneak it in there.”
Snuggerud’s second of the game came on a third period power play, ripping a shot from the half-wall just seconds after a 5-on-3 had expired.
That was the only goal of the third period, in which the Czechs outshot the US 12-7. Overall in the game, the shots were 38-27 in favour of the USA.
“We tried to stay focused on the game,” said Czech forward Adam Bares. “We thought if we got a couple of goals, we could get back into it, and we still tried our best. We weren’t saving any energy. It’s not a problem that we have to play again tomorrow. We’ll be ready and we’ll play our best.”