The semifinals of the 2018 World Juniors kicked off with a clash between powerhouse Sweden and last year’s gold medalists, the United States. Projected first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin and his Swedish cohorts battled a pesky Slovakia side in their quarter-final game, squeaking out a 3-2 victory. The United States faced off against their long time foe in Russia on Tuesday night, coming out on top with a 4-2 victory on the back of a two-goal game from Kieffer Bellows.
Casey Mittelstadt and Brady Tkachuk continue to be the driving force for the US, as Mittelstadt leads the tournament in scoring, while Tkachuck is fifth. Sweden is not without their own high-powered weapons at forward, as both Lias Andersson and Elias Pettersson are near the top of the scoring charts as well, in addition to the aforementioned Dahlin.
Joseph Woll got the start once again after a standout performance against the Russians, while opposite him would be Filip Gustavsson for the Swedes.
It was a closely contested opening half to the first period, neither side really gaining the advantage with high-danger chances. The best came from a cycle started behind the net by Ryan Poehling, which ended with Adam Fox firing one in on Gustavsson. Pettersson had a glorious chance to make a 1-0 game in close for Sweden, but instead fired the into the netting.
With Woll’s stick sitting away from his crease, Andrew Peeke pushed it over to his netminder, taking a penalty in the process for doing so. On the ensuing power play, the Swedish puck movement had the American penalty-killers scrambling, and Woll had to come across and steal a sure goal from Alex Nylander.
Brady Tkachuk, who has been a thorn in the side of every team he’s played this year, drew a penalty sending the US to the power play. Much like the Swedes earlier, the United States distributed the puck with ease, forcing their opponents all over, but they couldn’t solve Gustavsson. A late solo sojourn by Mittelstadt nearly got the Americans on the board with time dying down, but the two teams would head into the intermission tied, with the US on top in shots.
After a tightly contested opening period, the Swedes went back to the power play less than three minutes in with Max Jones taking a seat for hooking. Unlike their first man advantage, the Swedish attack failed to find any dents in the American defence, instead surrendering a few short-handed chances against, while their best scoring chances went wide off the net.
The Americans got the best chance of the period just past the halfway point when Logan Brown fired a harmless shot that Gustavsson kicked out off his pads. Riley Tufte nearly potted the errant rebound, but the Swedish netminder denied that chance as well. A thrilling rush by Rasmus Dahlin turned into chaos in front of Woll, and then into an odd-man rush in their favour before the play came to an end with a frozen puck in Sweden’s defensive zone.
A Dylan Samberg delayed penalty nearly gifted a goal to the Swedes shortly thereafter as Marcus Davidsson broke in on a breakaway, but lost the handle on the puck, allowing Woll to make the pad save.
The formidable Swedish attack finally solved Woll on the ensuing power play, with Elias Pettersson uncorking a wrist shot that found the top corner of the net.
Elias Pettersson with another filthy snipe. 1-0 Sweden pic.twitter.com/V4G41ouVar— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 4, 2018
The United States immediately put their foot down after the goal, with Kieffer Bellows leading the charge once more. His shot kicked off of Gustavsson’s pads just out of the reach of Kailer Yamamoto. Jones and Mittelstadt led the next wave of attack, with Jones throwing a massive hit on Erik Brannstrom then nearly finishing off a perfect pass in the goal mouth.
Brannstrom then took a penalty in the final 90 seconds of the period as Yamamoto flew by him into the offensive zone, giving the US one more chance to tie the game. Mittelstadt led a 3-on-0 charge, nearly putting it five hole for the goal, but Bellows was whistled for goaltender interference on the same play, cancelling out the US advantage.
Not the ideal result for a 3-on-0…. pic.twitter.com/iiv66Yuuva— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 4, 2018
An abbreviated power play for Sweden started the final period, and was handled with relative ease by the United States, sending the play back to even strength with 18 minutes left to play. Josh Norris nearly tied the game on a great play behind the net, the Sharks prospect circled the net, nearly finding the open part of the goal.
Brannstrom once again found himself in the box in the third, this time for interfering with Fox as he attempted to chase down a dump-in. The American man advantage failed to convert, giving Sweden all the momentum it needed.
The Swedes charged down right after, and a fine bit of interplay between Frederik Karlstrom and Lias Andersson led to the latter finishing the play off on a tap-in for a two-goal Sweden lead.
Lias Andersson scores his sixth goal of the WJC. Hell of a play. pic.twitter.com/tUgJD02Ikl— Adam Herman (@AdamZHerman) January 4, 2018
Another American power play couldn’t stop the bleeding either, as Oskar Steen broke in on the penalty kill, and wired home the third Swedish goal on a beautiful wrist shot.
Then it was Axel Jonsson-Fjallby who added to the growing rout between the two sides with another short-handed marker: a top shelf laser of a shot that chased Woll from the game.
Sweden gets its first of 2 shorthanded goals in 38 seconds pic.twitter.com/2zIVKxxq1m— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 4, 2018
To their credit, the Americans battled back in the following minutes, and thanks to another Swedish penalty finally broke through on the power play. Bellows would again be the man to find the back of the net with a gorgeous shot from the slot that beat Gustavsson high.
Kieffer Bellows gets USA on the board with a nice goal pic.twitter.com/edbm5TcoTE— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 4, 2018
With less than four on the clock, Oettinger made his way to the bench in favour of the extra attacker. It worked almost immediately with Brady Tkachuk cashing in on another juicy rebound shot, and giving the Americans a faint glimmer of hope in the final three minutes.
USA gets another from Brady Tkachuk and it’s a 4-2 game pic.twitter.com/mnprXM1ntf— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 4, 2018
Then Sweden gave the Americans a helping hand with penalty to Tim Soderlund getting the gate for holding Max Jones, sending the United States to a 6-on-4 power play. They had few chances as the Swedes simply iced the puck with no consequence, going to to win the first semifinal by a 4-2 score.
Sweden moves on to the Gold Medal Game, where they are guaranteed to snap a three-year medal drought. The USA will have to play for bronze, and will await the loser of the night’s second semifinal to see who they play on Friday afternoon.
After the game Eyes on the Prize caught up with Ryan Poehling to get his thoughts on tomorrow’s Bronze Medal Game, and the experience this tournament gave him.
EOTP: Obviously a tough game tonight. How did you as a team prepare for the depth and skill of a team like Sweden?
Poehling: I mean, I thought we had a good game plan coming into this game, and we just didn’t execute it. That was the biggest part of it. We tried playing their style of hockey and they ended up doing better at that than us. I think at the end of the day we just didn’t execute what we wanted to do, and we kind of played into their hands.
After a game like this, how do you prepare for the Bronze Medal Game tomorrow against either the Czechs or Canada?
Yeah, it’s hard. Third place isn’t something you want, but at the end of the day this is what we’re in and we’re doing it for our country, so... You don’t get anything for fourth, so that bronze medal is what we’re playing for now.
Is there a lot of experience or lessons you can take back to St. Cloud State with you after this?
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. It’s a very humbling experience being here. You see so much skill here. That’s the biggest difference between here and college: you see so much high-end skill here at World Juniors. I’m excited to get back to the team and get the support from the team, but for right now I just don’t know.
How can the team rebound going into next year’s tournament. Is there a unifying message?
Yeah, it takes a team to win this, and we had a great team this year and you gotta get some lucky bounces here and there. You gotta take a team of 20 guys who are willing to buy into what really matters, and it’s team success that matters the most. I think that’s where things went wrong a bit today; we were all playing for each other, but we didn’t execute and Sweden did a better job at doing that than we did.