Gold medal day!
And if anyone doubted this would be a thriller ripe for a Hollywood script, you had another thing coming. The question was solely who the hero would be?
In this case it was Colin White, who banged a wonderful pass from Jeremy Bracco into a screened Finnish goal with 7:16 to go in overtime.
“This is unbelievable. Scoring an overtime game-winner – well there’s no feeling like it. A lot of credit goes to my linemates. The defensemen got the puck up ice. Jeremy Bracco put the puck right on my stick. I was lucky enough to put it in”, explained an elated White.
With that, an amazing deadlock was ended in what ended up being one of the most thrilling, breathtaking finals in recent U18 World Championship history!
“Winning silver – winning any IIHF medal – is agreat achievement. We are disappointed that we were so close to gold and didn’t win it, but this is an incredible achievement for us and for our country”, explained Finnish captain Kasper Bjorkvist.
Thanks to a 7-2 win over archrival Canada in the semi-final, the USA earned its spot in the gold medal game with an exclamation point. Their only loss in the tournament came in the opener when Russia’s goalie was able to shut down what became far and away the tournament’s highest scoring team. In total, the USA had scored 44 goals in six games.
The march to the gold medal game was almost just as solid for Finland.
With only one loss (302) in the preliminary round to Canada, Finland finished off Slovakia 3-0 in the quarterfinal and then endured a nerve-wracking 5-4 overtime thriller against Switzerland in the semi-final.
Coming into the gold medal game with roughly five hours less time to rest and regenerate, Finland knew that their goalie Veini Vehvilainen would have to stand on his head much like Team Russia’s goalie had in the tournament’s third game.
And this is exactly what Finland got for long stretches of the game. In front of 4,750 fans in attendance, the young Finn with the big red pads stood on his head the entire game, with a good bit of help from his friends in blue. And it was a good thing for the Finns that he did.
“He was simply awesome! I don’t want to take anything away from the Russian goalie, but our guy was the best goalie in this tournament. I mean, you saw it today. I don’t need to say anything else. He was simply incredible!”, continued Bjorkvist.
The game got off to a quick start as Sebastian Aho, playing his first game of the tournament after having scored the Finnish Liiga finals championship winning goal just last night, burst out of the Finnish zone with the puck and sped past the US defenseman, establishing a 2-on-1 rush. He then dished off a beautiful pass to Julius Nattinen, who fired a one-timer past US goalie Evan Sarthou to open up scoring one the team’s first shot only 17 seconds into the game.
Several other strong opportunities were generated after that to really get the crowd, seemingly rooting for the underdog, into the game, as the US was clearly showing signs of initial shellshock.
Five minutes into the second, with the USA again dominating in offensive zone time with the puck, a counterattack led to a US player sliding into goalie Sarthou and quickly bringing the goal off its moorings. Apparently hurt on the play, the US skater slowly made his way to the bank, causing for a minute delay in the game.
With nine minutes to go, the US established a 2-on-2 situation that saw Jeremy Bracco deliver a perfect pass to Brenden Warren, who deked out Vehvilainen and appeared to have beaten him to the glove side. With the US forward already beginning his celebration, Vehvilainen raised his glove hand, showing he had grabbed the puck.
At the 38:23 mark of the second period, the USA was given the game’s first power play. 28 seconds later, a Finnish defender shot the puck directly over the glass while trying to clear and suddenly, the USA had another minute and nine seconds of 5-on-3 power play time. They could not make any use of it, actually seeing Finland break out on a 2-on-1 break at one juncture, and would open the third period with the same situation for 23 more seconds.
The Finns killed it off. The most important penalty kill of their tournament.
They even got a power play of their own roughly five minutes into the third, but couldn’t capitalize. The penalty kill for the USA turned into a turning point.
At the 48:41 mark, Jack Roslovic pounced on a pass Matthew Tkachuk, pushing the pack past Vehvilainen, bringing the US bench to an volcano of cheers. The game was tied at one a piece with less than 12 minutes to play. We had a game.
“It was really tough getting that first goal, but we knew that once we did, we just needed to keep wearing them down. That was our goal. A credit to them, they did a good job. Plus points to the Finns. But we did what we wanted to and got the job done”, claimed goal-scorer Roslovic.
Despite relentless pressure from the USA, the game couldn’t be solved in regulation time and entered a phase of 4-on-4 sudden death overtime. Here the Finns took a very compact wait and see approach, hoping to win the game on a counterattack.
The period dwindled down with neither team looking to be able to break the other.
Until the moment came. Jeremy Bracco gained the puck along the blueline, danced his way carefully to the goal and then slid a golden pass over to White. With traffic in front of the net, the shot mad its way through and the USA were gold medalists for the second year in a row.
For Head Coach Don Granato, it was a truly sweet result after having lost to Canada in the 2013 U18 gold medal game in Sochi, Russia.
“That was an absolute thriller! Last night’s game against Canada was already exhausting. They came very, very hard at us tonight. We feel very fortunate to have won this game. We’re so excited about this, but extremely respectful of the Finnish program for that performance tonight.”
“We played quite a long game against Switzerland yesterday. The USA had a bit more time to regenerate. We just didn’t have the energy to keep up in the end. But I am very, very proud of every single young man in our locker room. This tournament was quite and achievement for Finnish ice hockey,” said a proud Finnish coach, Mika Marttila.
The scorer of Finland’s game-winner against Switzerland, Aleksi Saarela, was visibly distraught with the close loss. “I don’t know what to say. We tried absolutely everything we could today, but the USA was simply better.”
A tournament of excitement came to an end with a plethora of young men we’ll be hearing about in the future. The following players were named to the All-Star Team:
GK FIN Veini Vehvilainen
D FIN Viili Saarijarvi
D SUI Jonas Siegenthaler
F USA Auston Matthews
F FIN Patrik Laine
F SUI Denis Malgin
Named the MVP was Team USA center Auston Matthews, who finished as the tournament’s top scorer with eight goals and 14 points.
On winning his second gold in as many tournaments, Matthews stated, “This is an indescribable feeling. To win it with this group of guys is just amazing. So much blood, sweat, and tears went into this championship. I’m so proud. This is just unbelievable!”
Matthews was also selected as the tournament’s top forward by the IIHF Directorate:
Best Goaltender RUS Ilya Samsonov
Best Defenceman FIN Vili Saarijarvi
Best Forward USA Auston Matthews
In conclusion, coach Granato shared his thoughts on the tournament, “This has been a great tournament. Just amazing. Back home in the United States, I’m not sure people fully understand what the IIHF puts on for an event here. And I mean at any level. These events are incredible. They are experiences of a lifetime. Not only for the players, but also for the families and coaches and all involved. This is my second U18. I’ve been a part of other USA groups at these tournaments. It’s always incredible to be a part of this.”
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