2013 IIHF World Junior Championships: USA & Sweden Reach Gold Medal Game

Chris Blanchard@@BlanchardNHLContributor IIIJanuary 3, 2013

Seth Jones and Captain Jake McCabe have led Team USA to the gold medal game / Nathan Denette/AP
Seth Jones and Captain Jake McCabe have led Team USA to the gold medal game / Nathan Denette/AP

Only two teams remain at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. The United States and defending champion Sweden shocked favorites Canada and Russia respectively to earn the two coveted spots in Saturday's gold medal game.

Here's a look at the semifinal matches:

Game 1

USA 5, Canada 1

A confident Team USA thumped the so-called Canadian Dream Team and sent their neighbors from north of the border into mourning. Near unanimous favorites entering the tournament, the Canadians will return from the World Juniors without gold medals for the fourth consecutive year. 

The Americans, on the other hand, seem to have justified Seth Jones' pre-tournament belief that they are the team to beat in Ufa. Now having won their last three games by a combined scored of 21-4, Phil Housley's boys have suddenly become favorites to finish on top in Russia. 

The U.S. looked like a brand new team compared to the squad that lost to Canada 2-1 on December 30. 

Their newfound confidence was evident from the get-go Thursday. After a number of quality early chances, the United States took the lead seven minutes into the first period. Riley Barber's pass from behind the net found captain Jake McCabe in the slot and his shot sailed by helpless Canadian goalie Malcolm Subban who was screened by a mob of skaters. 

Captain America doubled his team's lead nine minutes later. Rocco Grimaldi set up McCabe for a beautiful shot that was once again heavily screen-assisted. 

Canadian coach Steve Spott tried to rally his team during the first intermission, but the Canadians fared no better after the break. They looked sluggish and discombobulated throughout despite coming off an extra day of rest. 

Early in the second, Team USA's John Gaudreau extended his country's lead with his sixth goal in a three-game span. The high-scoring Boston college star was shut out early in the tournament but seemingly regained his confidence with a two-goal effort against Slovakia. Gaudreau netted a hat trick in the USA's 7-0 quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic on Wednesday, and he was constantly threatening in the semis. 

Nearing the midway point in the game, Harvard freshman Jim Vesey dinged a shot into the net off the inside of the post to mark the end of Malcolm Subban's day.

The oft-criticized Subban will be a likely scapegoat for the loss by a Canadian fanbase all too familiar with goaltending meltdowns, but his performance was hardly the cause of Canada's disastrous loss. Subban failed to bail out his teammates' unacceptable play and did not match the spectacular performance from his first battle against the U.S., but he was the least of Canada's problems. 

Backup Jordan Binnington finally got his tournament debut but could not change his team's fate despite a strong outing. 

Unlike Subban, American goalie John Gibson has received nothing but praise for his dominant performance in Ufa. The Anaheim Ducks prospect dazzled in net once again on Thursday making 33 saves. He was unbeatable with the exception of Ty Rattie's dubious third period goal. 

The Canadians only found their way onto the scoreboard with the help of an errant whistle that allowed Rattie to beat a pack of American defenders who had stopped playing. After an official review, the goal stood despite clear evidence of a whistle preceding the goal. 

The American defensive corps led by Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones was excellent throughout the day, muzzling any attempts at a Canadian rally. The quality chances that did sneak through were stonewalled by Gibson. 

As time rapidly slipped away in the third period, Canada failed to muster much of anything. With just four minutes remaining, John Gaudreau took advantage of the frustrated Canadian team to score his seventh goal of the tournament. The so-called "Johnny Hockey" now sits atop the tournament goal-scoring charts and looks to be Team USA's most potent threat. 

Gaudreau's long-awaited arrival as an offensive force has extinguished concerns over an American shortage of scoring depth. He will be a player to watch in the final. 

Canada had hoped that 2013 would shape up like 2005, the last time that an NHL lockout allowed the team to field its very best 19-year-olds. However, the presence of NHL-ready stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele and Dougie Hamilton was not enough to end Canada's gold medal drought. 

Steve Spott's gang is left with no excuse for their lackluster semifinal performance. Their final three periods in Ufa simply did not match the talent on the roster. Even though hope still remains for a 15th consecutive medal, it is impossible to view Canada's 2013 campaign as anything other than an embarrassing failure. 

The dark-horse Americans proved to be greater than the sum of their parts, receiving contributions from every member of their lineup. Though this victory is far less shocking than the famous Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, coach Phil Housley likely channeled the legendary Herb Brooks who coached him to Olympic silver in 2002. 

He compiled a squad full of role players with mountains of heart who came to Russia ready to outwork, out-skate and out-hit more talented competition. 

It certainly helped that he was afforded stars like Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones and Alex Galchenyuk, but this tournament run has required equal contributions from grinders like Cole Bardreau, Ryan Hartman and Blake Pietila. 

If the Americans produce another complete team effort in the gold medal game, they will likely walk away as World Junior Champions. 

Game 2

Sweden 3, Russia 2 (SO)

The second semifinal pitted host country Russia against Sweden in a rematch of the 2012 gold medal game, won by Sweden in a 1-0 overtime thriller. With a shootout victory, Sweden has once again ended Russia's gold medal hopes. 

Despite claiming gold in Canada a year ago, Sweden is a surprising finalist in this year's competition. The Swedes suffered major pre-tournament setbacks, losing three first round picks from their defensive corps due to injury.

The absence of star defenders Jonas Brodin, Oscar Klefbom and Hampus Lindholm was compounded by the Ottawa Senators' decision to withhold forward Mika Zibanejad from the tournament. Selected sixth overall in the 2011 draft, Zibanejad scored the golden goal for Sweden in the 2012 final. 

Despite their depleted lineup, the Swedes were able to knock off a Russian team that was expected to challenge for gold on home ice. Led by 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov, Team Russia has suffered a major disappointment as they prepare to face an equally devastated Team Canada in Saturday's bronze medal bout. 

The Russians seemed completely absent in the first period, much like fellow favorites Canada who were blown out by the U.S. several hours earlier. They were credited with just two shots on goal in the first compared to Sweden's 14. Unfortunately for Russia, both those shots struck the outside of the net. 

Meanwhile, Sweden bombarded Russian goalie Andrey Vasilevskiy for the entire 20 minutes. Elias Lindholm gave Sweden the lead with a power play goal six-and-a-half minutes into the game. The potential 2013 first-rounder came across Vasilevskiy's face and slotted the puck through the five hole for his second goal of the tournament. 

Three minutes later, Swedish captain Filip Forsberg doubled the lead on assists from Rasmus Bengtsson and Robert Hagg. 

The Russians finally arrived after the intermission, coming out of the tunnel with a much better effort. Seven-and-a-half minutes into the period Nail Yakupov and Kirill Kapustin set up Andrei Mironov to cut the lead in half. 

In the third period, Mikhail Grigorenko gave the capacity crowd at Ufa Arena what they desperately craved when he knocked a rebound past Swedish goalie Niklas Lundstrom to tie the game at two. 

The Buffalo Sabres prospect has been Russia's best skater throughout the tournament, coming up huge in the clutch on a number of occasions. He assisted on Nikita Kucherov's game-tying goal against Switzerland in the quarterfinals, and Kucherov returned the favor by setting up Grigorenko's crucial strike on Thursday. 

Lundstrom and Vasilevskiy stole the show late in the third, each rejecting a number of attempts to end the game in regulation. 

The goalies held their nerve in overtime, pushing the game into a shootout.

Both teams failed to score in the first two rounds of the shootout, but in round three, Sweden's Sebastian Collberg, who stepped to center ice with three tournament goals on his resume, put his country on the brink with a spectacular goal that left the puck lodged in the top of the netting. 

Russia's Nikita Kucherov, who scored the shootout winner against Switzerland on Wednesday, needed to beat Lundstrom to keep his team alive. Kucherov's attempt asked the question but Lundstrom's answer was a definitive no. 

The Swedish bench erupted, as the nearly eight thousand Russian fans in Ufa Arena settled into the realization that their team's run was over. 

The undefeated Swedes will now look to carry their momentum to gold against the red-hot United States. 

Sweden lost to the USA 3-2 in a pre-tournament game on December 20, with American defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere scoring the overtime winner. Though the teams are somewhat familiar with each other, both have vastly improved over the last two weeks. 

Despite their 5-0 record in Ufa, Sweden will likely find themselves as the underdog in the gold medal game, having failed to match the Americans massive scoring outbursts in the tournament.

Though they have scored nine fewer goals than the United States, Roger Ronnberg's defending champions are not to be underestimated. 

Three Stars

1. John Gibson - USA

John Gibson carried Team USA to a colossal upset victory over rival Canada with 33 saves. He would have pitched his third shutout of the tournament had Canada's Ty Rattie not scored after a whistle. Monster saves denying the likes of Ryan Strome and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins gave Team USA the necessary confidence to control every facet of the game. 

2. Andrey Vasilevskiy - Russia

Even in a losing effort, Andrey Vasilevskiy was the best player on the ice in Thursday's second semifinal. Vasilevskiy made 38 saves to keep his team in the game, surrendering just two goals. Though he conceded to Sebastian Collberg in the shootout, the Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder is deserving of major praise for his performance. 

3. John Gaudreau - USA

John Gaudreau has become a regular in the three stars section with three consecutive multi-goal games. "Johnny Hockey" scored twice in the USA's 5-1 win over Canada. The Calgary Flames prospect suddenly looks like the most confident player in the tournament and his recent form will give Sweden's goaltenders nightmares as they prepare for Saturday's gold medal game. 


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