Hat trick mania as U.S. burns Finns
by Lucas AYKROYD|30 APR 2024
The U.S.'s Teddy Stiga (#8) and James Hagens (#10) combined for six goals in a 9-4 thrashing of host Finland at the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
Hats off to America! Teddy Stiga scored a natural hat trick and James Hagens dazzled with three goals as the defending champion U.S. hammered Finland 9-4 for first place in Group A on Tuesday night.

Coach Nick Fohr's Americans will face Switzerland in Thursday's quarter-finals, while the host Finns confront Nordic archrival Sweden.

Of battling the Swiss, Stiga said: "I think we're pretty familiar with those guys. We've played them, I think, four or five times. So we kind of know what we need to do, and we're just going to rest tomorrow and then get at it."

Hagens added three assists for a six-point night. The shifty 17-year-old ace, an early MVP candidate here and the #1 prospect for the 2025 NHL Draft, now leads the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with 16 points (7+9=16). He's eyeing Nikita Kucherov's single-tournament scoring record (21 points, 2011).

The U.S. racked up four power-play goals and outshot Finland 51-24. The final outcome was never seriously in doubt. It wasn't exactly the performance the Finns wanted with newly elected Finnish president Alexander Stubb in attendance. But the Americans were pleased.

"It just kind of shows how we're all ready to win, just trying to win a gold medal," Hagens said. "And we're going to put everything we have on the line. To be able to go out there in front of so many people and put up nine goals in this game, that's a huge step for our team."

Defender Mitja Jokinen was one bright spot for Finland with a goal and two helpers.

Looking forward to facing Sweden next, captain Aron Kiviharju said: "They're our neighbours, and it's always a great rival team when Finland and Sweden face each other. It's going to be a great game on Thursday."

This was the marquee matchup of the group stage for good reason. The Finns and Americans have thrice played for U18 Worlds gold. The U.S. previously triumphed in 2006 and 2015, while Finland prevailed in 2018.

Yet it proved to be a big statement game for the Americans, underlining their status as the team to beat in 2024.

It began as a battle of starting goalies. The U.S.’s Nicholas Kempf and Finland’s Petteri Rimpinen came in with the tournament’s best numbers (97.7 save percentage and 0.56 GAA for Kempf, 95.6 save percentage and 0.50 GAA for Rimpinen). However, Rimpinen would be pulled by the third period.

In the first period, the U.S. set the early pace with speed and physicality, outshooting the hosts 21-6.

Stiga, who took the first U.S. penalty, redeemed himself by opening the scoring at 15:53. He took a long pass from Hagens at the Finnish blue line, broke in off left wing and flung a shot underneath Rimpinen’s left pad. The goalie looked skyward in dismay and the partisan Espoo crowd quieted down.

The quick-strike U.S. offence couldn't be contained. Off the opening second-period faceoff, just 0:08 in, Cole Hutson found a streaking Hagens and he sent the puck across to Stiga for a 2-0 lead.

Stiga tallied his third goal at 1:49 on a Finnish defensive miscue. Emil Hemming fell coming out from behind the net, allowing the U.S. assistant captain to get the puck from Hagens and surprise Rimpinen.

"I probably wasn't expecting any hats to be thrown," Stiga quipped.

If Stiga continues producing like this, he may boost his draft stock. Talent evaluators envision the Massachusetts native going anywhere from the late first round to the third round in June.

Finnish coach Marko Kauppinen used his time-out in a bid to turn the tide. And at 4:35, the Finns finally broke through after some good offensive-zone pressure.

Jokinen found Tuomas Suoniemi barging to the net and the Kiekko-Espoo forward got his fans cheering as he put the puck past the U.S. goalie's right skate.

Yet again, the defending champs answered back. Moving the puck crisply, the top-ranked U.S. power play clicked just 14 seconds into its first chance. Kamil Bedarnik converted L.J. Mooney's cross-ice pass on the doorstep for a 4-1 lead.

The Finns didn't quit. At the nine-minute mark, Jokinen cut the deficit to 4-2 as he hustled into the right faceoff circle and one-timed a sweet Konsta Helenius feed past Kempf.

The action got fast and furious later in the second period. With under three minutes to the buzzer, Bednarik was shaken up on a collision with his linemate Logan Hensler, and Helenius hit the post on the same sequence.

Hagens made it 5-2 U.S. when his spin-a-rama backhand pass to Stiga on the rush deflected in off Suoniemi's stick at 18:05. Simply undeniable, Hagens beat Rimpinen on a power-play one-timer from the slot at 19:26.

Jokinen set up Joona Saarelainen right in front for the third Finnish goal, which he coolly notched on a backhand deke with 0:06 left in the frame. But there would be no wild Finnish comeback.

To kick off the third period, the U.S.'s blinding speed yielded two more quick goals. Amazingly, it again took just eight seconds for Fohr's boys to capitalize. Teaming up with Hutson again, Hagens surprised Rimpinen with a bad-angle shot from the right corner for a 7-3 lead.

"We had two set plays in our heads, me and James, and we tried them both out," Hutson said. "Didn't really think they would work. But he's a stud. He put them in."

After Trevor Connelly made it 8-3 on the power play at 2:03, Kauppinen mercifully pulled Rimpinen in favour of backup Kim Saarinen.

Suoniemi and Ziemer exchanged goals in the final 10 minutes to round out the scoring at 9-4. Both teams will have different reasons for being fired up as they head into the elimination games.

According to Jokinen, the vocal Espoo fans could give Finland the edge on Thursday: "When we got the puck and scored some goals, they made a lot of noise. That was very great. And I hope they will do it again against Sweden."