So in Sunday’s gold-medal rematch between these two undefeated teams at the 2023 tournament, revenge is inevitably on the minds of coach Dan Muse’s Americans. Particularly the four returning players from the 2022 squad: forwards Will Smith and Ryan Leonard, defenceman Brady Cleveland, and goalie Trey Augustine.
Leonard sits third (7+9=16 points), just behind their playmaking linemate Gabe Perreault (5+13=18), and he’ll be fired up to script a different ending in Basel, Switzerland. The gritty winger gave the U.S. a dream start in the 2022 final with the first goal just 2:24 in, before things went sideways.
“I want revenge on Sweden because being there last year and them taking the gold medal off my chest is a little bit aggravating,” Leonard said.
What of coach Anders Eriksen’s Swedes? Featuring two returnees in captain Otto Stenberg and defenceman Theo Lindstein, the defending champs represent the most formidable challenge the Americans have faced yet. The U.S. boasts the better overall goal difference (48-8 to Sweden’s 31-6), but for what it’s worth, the Swedes have outscored their playoff opponents 13-3 versus the U.S’s 11-2.
“We have a lot of respect for the USA, but we know that we can play well if we trust our game,” said Sweden’s Noah Erliden, who leads all starting goalies with a 1.20 GAA, 95.0 save percentage, and two shutouts. “We're going to do our best to get the gold medal.”
That said, the Swedes have done well to activate their defence. All-star team candidate Axel Sandin Pellikka (2+8=10) and Tom Willander (3+5=8) serve as a counterweight to the U.S.’s brilliant Cole Hutson (1+10=11), who’s the top-scoring D-man so far.
Taking two five-minute majors, as the Swedes did in their 7-2 semi-final romp over Canada, would be playing with fire against the potent U.S. power play. However, the U.S. should probably be even more wary of Sweden.
The Smakronorna scored three PP goals in their last outing and now lead the tournament in PP efficiency (12-for-25, 48.0 percent). The Americans are close behind (11-for-23, 47.8 percent), but four of their goals came in the 7-1 opening win over Latvia, and they’ve really been winning games 5-on-5.
Both finalists exude confidence. There’s no doubt we’re looking at the tournament's two best teams.
“We're having a ton of fun,” Smith said. “You can see us on the bench. We're so fired up. We have one more to go, so hopefully that'll be even more fun.”
There haven't been many gold medal rematches in U18 Worlds history. In fact, the only two nations who have previously met in consecutive finals are (wait for it) the U.S. and Sweden. The Americans won gold in all three cases from 2010 to 2012. Double gold medalists in that span included names like Seth Jones, Jason Zucker, Jacob Trouba, and Jack Campbell.
So will it be revenge for the U.S. or back-to-back golds for Sweden on Sunday?
Both history and the 2023 American team’s overwhelming firepower suggest that the U.S. has a slight edge here. However, there’s no insurmountable weakness in the Swedes’ game this year. To see them repeat would be no surprise either. A thrilling final lies in store.