Smith's hatty lifts U.S. into final
by Lucas Aykroyd|29 APR 2023
Will Smith (#2) opens the scoring on a breakaway versus Slovakia's Samuel Urban (#31) in the U.S.'s 7-1 semi-final rout at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
photo: Matt Zambonin / IIHF
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We are witnessing shades of greatness in Basel. Will Smith dazzled with a hat trick as the U.S. marched to a 7-1 semi-final win over Slovakia at the 2023 U18 Worlds.

The U.S. will seek their all-time record 11th gold medal against the Sweden-Canada semi-final winner.

"We have a bad taste from last year," said Smith, alluding to the U.S.'s 6-4 gold-medal loss to the Swedes in Germany. "I think everyone knows what happened. Following our player identity, this is just another game. Hopefully we'll come out on top."
Smith (9+10=19) is tied with fellow American Cole Eiserman for the tournament goals lead and is one point up on linemate Gabe Perreault for the points lead.

The ultra-creative Boston College commit could break Nikita Kucherov's single-tournament points record (21 points in seven games in 2011, 11+10=21). Jack Hughes' U.S. record (20 points in seven games in 2019, 9+11=20) is in reach too.

"It's pretty cool, I think," Smith said. "But none of that really matters if we don't win. So I think if that comes, it comes. We're here for the gold."

Perreault, Ryan Leonard, and Aram Minnetian had two assists apiece. Cole Hutson, who leads all defencemen in scoring (1+10=11), added a goal and an assist, as did Sal Guzzo. The U.S. outshot Slovakia 50-28.

Slovakia, making its first top-division appearance since 2019, could still fulfill a dream with a bronze medal. The Slovaks – whose 2022 Olympic team delivered an historic bronze – haven’t medaled at the U18 Worlds since 2003’s surprising silver.

The U.S. largely contained Dalibor Dvorsky. Coach Tibor Tartal's top-line centre keyed Slovakia’s 6-4 comeback win versus Germany with five points. Dvorsky had three more points in the 3-2 quarter-final upset over Finland. But he only scored once in this semi-final when it was out of reach.

"We prepared the same way for this game as any other game," Dvorsky said. "I don't know the reasons [we lost]. It wasn't our day, I guess."

"I think we played against the best team in this tournament," said Slovak captain Maxim Strbak. "These guys are tough to play. They're very talented and they've been playing with each other for two years. So they really showed the talent that they have. We lost, but we've got to refocus. We have a big game tomorrow."

Drum-beating, flag-waving Slovak fans chanted “Slovensko!” as the sides traded early chances.

At 4:16, the U.S. drew first blood with a beauty. Leonard sent the puck ahead to Perreault, and he hit a streaking Smith at the blue line. Smith snapped the puck past Slovak starter Samuel Urban.

With the teams at 4-on-4, Hutson scored his first goal of the tournament at 14:18. He took an Oliver Moore feed at the blue line and cut in off right wing to sneak one past Urban.

"Their guy was kind of flat-footed and I used my speed," Hutson said. "Walked him wide and then put my shoulder down to act like I was going back post and then just chipped it over."

Slovakia buzzed around Augustine’s cage on an extended 5-on-3, but critically couldn’t cash in.

Smith scored a back-breaking power-play marker with 34 seconds left in the period. Perreault found Smith in the left faceoff circle with a tricky back pass, and his laser wrister bulged the twine.

In the second period, it took just 50 seconds for Smith to complete his hat trick on a slick 3-on-2 with Hutson and Leonard.

"It's always nice," Smith said. "The celebrations are super-fun with everyone, hugging your buddies. So it's always fun."

At 3:44, Guzzo surprised Urban with a bad-angle shot to make it 5-0 U.S. Tartal had now seen enough and yanked Urban in favour of backup Lukas Fursten.

"We used the energy of the crowd and I thought we had a great start, getting up 5-0," said Smith.

Dvorsky reignited the Slovak fans when he poked in his seventh goal shortly after the midway point.

The third period saw tempers flaring after U.S. captain Zach Schulz shook up Roman Kukumberg with a heavy hit. Hutson and Kukumberg were later sent off after skirmishing in the U.S. end.

Danny Nelson's quick release made it 6-1 with 2:45 left, and Eiserman added a power play goal with 1:15 left.

Dvorsky accentuated the positive about playing for bronze: "It's really good for our hockey. We wanted to go to the final, but we're going to try to win bronze. That would also be huge for Slovakia."

‚ÄčThe Americans last won the gold medal in 2017. That roster had future NHLers like Quinn Hughes, Brady Tkachuk, and Joel Farabee, who scored twice in the 4-2 final win over Finland.

Historically, the U.S. has owned Slovakia at this tournament. After losing in 1999 (6-5) and 2000 (4-1), the Americans have reeled off 10 straight wins. The last encounter was a 12-5 U.S. win at the 2019 U18 Worlds in Ornskoldsvik Sweden, where Jack Hughes tied the single-game points record with seven (4+3=7).

With a goal difference of 48-8, the 2023 U.S. team is among the most dangerous in U18 Worlds history. In 2021, the golden Canadian team had the best goal difference of all time (51-12).

Whatever happens in the final, the U.S. is guaranteed an all-time record 19th medal. But Muse's team yearns to be remembered for winning gold, not just filling the net.
United States vs Slovakia (SF) - 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship