Leonard cut into the slot and fired a quick shot that squeezed past Swedish goalie Noah Erliden. The top-line winger flung away his stick and gloves and skated triumphantly to the side boards as his U.S. teammates mobbed him.
"[Cole Hutson] gave it to me," said a beaming Leonard, who finished third in tournament scoring (8+9=17). "I actually saw their defender had a little bit of a weaker gap, and I tried to get to the middle and shot it."
For coach Dan Muse's highly skilled and hard-working Americans, dethroning Sweden was a wonderful revenge. The U.S lost last year's final 6-4 to Sweden and last won gold in 2017. This is their tournament-record 11th gold medal of all time.
The U.S. rallied from a 2-0 third-period deficit on third-period goals by Danny Nelson and Carey Terrance. Tournament MVP and scoring leader Will Smith assisted on Terrance's equalizer. With that assist, Smith matched Jack Hughes' U.S. single-tournament points record (9+11=20, 2019).
"It's pretty special," Smith said. "I said it didn't matter if we didn't win, and we won. So I think it's pretty cool. And we're celebrating everything. It's unbelievable."
Coach Anders Eriksen's Swedes, who got goals from Elliot Stahlberg and Noel Nordh, were stunned after failing to retain their crown. Still, the Scandinavians have now medalled at five straight U18 Worlds.
"We played really well tonight," said Swedish captain Otto Stenberg. "We worked as hard as we can. We played really well for 50 minutes. And we lost. Right now, it feels terrible."
The U.S. outshot Sweden 41-32.
For most of the night, the Swedes supported the puck well and denied the top U.S. line of Smith, Leonard, and Gabe Perreault the time and space they'd had in their previous six wins. But the Americans found a way.
Leonard, Smith, Brady Cleveland, and goalie Trey Augustine were the four 2022 returnees for whom this revenge clearly tasted the sweetest.
"We worked our butts off for two years straight," Smith said. "We're doing work that no one else was doing. We had 20 minutes left with our group, and we said, 'Why not put all we have into it?' And after that first [goal], we could feel the momentum. It worked out well."
In a fast-paced first period, Sweden scored on its first Grade-A chance at 9:33. Anton Wahlberg dug the puck out with an aggressive forecheck and found Stahlberg in the slot. Stahlberg scored high to the glove side. The U.S. challenged the play for goalie interference, but it was ruled good.
On the first U.S. man advantage, a spectacular passing play by Smith and Perreault put Terrance unguarded on the doorstep, but Erliden robbed him with the right pad.
In the second period, Wahlberg remained dangerous. He danced through the U.S. defence just over a minute in and Augustine stymied his attempt with his own right pad save.
"Trey's Trey," said Leonard. "He's the best goalie in the world and he has our back anytime."
The Swedes went up 2-0 at 7:14 on the power play. Swedish rearguard Axel Sandin Pellikka capped off some stellar puck movement by sending it from the right faceoff circle to Nordh, who was positioned on the doorstep to tip it in. It was Nordh's third goal of these U18 Worlds.
At this point, the Americans struggled to navigate through a forest of blue-and-yellow sweaters.
With tension mounting, the U.S.'s Zeev Buium hit Erliden's left post early in the third period. Nearing the nine-minute mark, the Swedish goalie stoned Oliver Moore with a glove save in close.
With 9:44 left, Nelson finally cut the deficit to 2-1, tipping in Buium's point shot. The Americans had life.
"I figured I'd better try to get across the goalie's eyes, and I was just able to get a stick on it and redirect it in," Nelson said.
The U.S. capitalized when David Edstrom was sent off late for holding. Cole Eiserman, who tied Smith for the tournament goals lead (nine), unleashed a laser from the right faceoff circle that Terrance deflected to make it 2-2 with 3:16 remaining.
Muse's boys had a nervous stretch when Smith took a hooking minor with 1:03 left. The Swedes called their timeout to strategize. They fired shots from all angles, but couldn't beat Augustine as the power play carried over into overtime.
Of his emotional state, Smith said: "It was pretty up and down. I mean, between periods after the third, I was begging guys to get the kill! And they said they got me, and I trusted them. And I knew Trey wasn't gonna let one get by him."
Nord reflected on the loss: "It's very tough. I mean, we are working so hard for this, and I love to play with this group and for Sweden. It sucks right now."
The Americans tied Canada's 2021 record for most goals in a tournament (51) and set a new record for best goal difference (51-10).
Does another gold medal lie in store for the Americans in 2024? Or will there be a new champion? Hockey fans around the world are already eager to find out the answer.