UFA, RUSSIA - A Russian reporter asked Swedish defenseman Robert Hagg if his team had gotten lucky against the host nation in their 3-2 shootout victory.
“Lucky? No,” Hagg said. “We were the better team.”
That they were, as were the Americans in their 5-1 rout of Canada earlier in the day, setting up a final that both TSN and the citizens of Ufa will hate. But from a hockey perspective, a gold medal clash between the Swedes and Team USA will be a compelling match.
In the early game, the Americans used a wolf pack mentality in front of Canada's net to cause confusion and open up the points for two straight goals from blueliner and captain Jake McCabe. A couple more snipes from the deadly Johnny Gaudreau salted things away. In fact, Canada's one goal – a Ty Rattie second-chancer – should not have even counted, as the whistle had blown, albeit erroneously. But that pressure early on really put the Americans in the driver's seat.
“They're top-notch forwards,” said Canada's Tyler Wotherspoon. “They played really well against us and played really structured. They took advantage of their opportunities and I thought we played better as the game went on, but by then it was too late.”
Once again, Team USA's defense corps was masterful, as was goaltender John Gibson. The Americans played as a team and that's why they're off to the final.
“It doesn't take much to get up for these games,” McCabe said. “Not much needs to be said in the dressing room. They're emotional games, the boys were excited and we showed that with our start.”
On the other hand, Canada has to see its effort as a missed opportunity.
“Desperation was the key,” said coach Steve Spott. “They played with the desperation that we didn't have.”
The scoring line of Rattie, Ryan Strome and Jonathan Huberdeau was victimized several times on U.S. goals, while defenseman Scott Harrington had an uncharacteristic game from hell. Boone Jenner, celebrated as the team's hero one game prior, was woeful in the faceoff circle.
But this was not an upset. Sure, Canada came in as the higher seed, but USA hockey is now at a place where a game with Canada will always be a 50-50 proposition and Canucks must accept that. True, if each team had a 'B squad,' Canada's depth would make it the favorite in that showdown, but that's not how the world works. The National Team Development Program and the growth of hockey in non-traditional states have brought better athletes and more elite players into the fold. Just look at Seth Jones, a Texas native, who spent the game snuffing out any Canadian offensive chances in his end.
In the other tilt, the Swedes dominated the first period with skating and puck possession, then held on as the Russians made a furious comeback in the second half of the contest, only to fall on Sebastian Collberg's shootout marker.
Having Sweden back in the final is not a shock based on the way Russia had played the previous two games, but a lot of credit must go to coach Roger Ronnberg, who came into Ufa without his four best players – defensemen Oscar Klefbom, Jonas Brodin and Hampus Lindholm (injuries) and center Mika Zibanejad (NHL team decision) – and has yet to lose a game. Versus the Russians, Sweden was led by the play of Filip Forsberg, Elias Lindholm and Collberg up front and, amazingly, the 17-year-old Hagg on the back end.
“Did you see him play against Yakupov today?” Ronnberg said. “That was one of the game-winning points for us. He shut down Yakupov, one of the best forwards in the world at his age.”
In what is often called a 19-year-old's tournament, Sweden heads to the final with five players entering the NHL draft for the first time, all of whom play substantial roles (Hagg, Lindholm, Jacob De La Rose, Linus Arnesson and Alexander Wennberg).
While the defending champs still need to take out the Americans for a second straight gold, they've at least got the talent for a three-peat.