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U-18 World Championship Roundup: Hughes comes up big for USA; Canada, Russia, Sweden advance

The medal round kicked off for the U-18 World Championship in Sweden, with four of the top hockey nations advancing. Meanwhile, a flat effort by Finland ends their chances early, while Belarus, Latvia and the Czech Republic are left thinking what could have been.

Top prospect Hughes comes through against Finland
With Kaapo Kakko busy preparing for the Men's World Championship, Finland were drubbed by the United States Thursday and will finish the U-18 tournament without a medal for the first time since 2014. USA's Jack Hughes, the undisputed No. 1 prospect in June's draft, led the way with a hat trick and his 16 points put him just five points behind the all-time single-tournament record. (21, set by Nikita Kucherov in 2011.) Hughes, who has 28 career points in the U-18 tournament, needs three points to surpass Alex Ovechkin for top spot on the tournament's all-time scoring.

Meanwhile, Cole Caufield's 12th goal of the tournament puts him two behind Ovechkin for the most in a single tournament, and Caufield's 15 points are second behind linemate Hughes. Matt Beniers and Bobby Brink each scored once, Trevor Zegras registered four assists and Spencer Knight stopped all 21 shots he faced for his first shutout of the tournament.

For Finland, the loss comes in a season that saw them finish fifth at the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament in August. While Kakko's absence hurt, the Finns have a better team than the results suggest. Ville Heinola is expected to land in the first round in June and a few others won't have to wait long on the second day to hear their names called. Anton Lundell, a top prospect for the 2020 draft, had four points in the tournament and will be a major contributor to Finland's U-20 team next season.

Canada squeaks by Latvia thanks to strong goaltending
Canada had only played Latvia three times previously at the U-18s, winning those games by a combined 20-8 score. On paper, the matchup wasn't close, but Canada struggled to show their strength and eked out a mere 3-1 victory.

In fact, if it wasn't for Latvia's own goal in the second period, it could have been a completely different story. After a Latvian player won the faceoff, the puck trickled back to Latvian blueliner Harijs Brants, who tipped the pass through the legs of goaltender Arturs Silovs and gifted Canada its second goal. The Canadians gave the Latvians numerous opportunities to get back in the game, including a two-man advantage near the midway point of the third, during which Brants redeemed himself and scored Latvia's lone goal. Canada added an empty netter with 19 seconds remaining to seal the deal and move onto a semifinal meeting with Sweden on Saturday. Canadian goaltender Taylor Gauthier was huge. He stopped all 38 shots he faced, including big-time stops late in the game. At the other end, Arturs Silovs stopped 40 for his best performance of the tournament.

Like Belarus, the loss can still be seen as a success for the Latvians. Latvia has never made the quarterfinals in eight previous top-level U-18 tournaments. Latvia's victory over Switzerland in the round robin was celebrated like a championship by the Latvians, who are seeking long-term stability for their junior hockey programs.

Russia ends Belarussian dream
Belarus stunned the Czech Republic and defending champions Finland to kick off the tournament, but their luck ran out after Russia took them down 6-0 on Thursday, handing Belarus its second loss of the tournament.

Russia had never lost to Belarus in U-18 competition entering action, and the Russian power play's three goals made sure that wouldn't change. Six different players scored for the Russians, beginning with Ilya Nikolayev capitalizing on a feed from Vasili Podkolzin to make it 1-0 late in the first period. It was all Russia from that point on, with Yaroslav Askarov, considered by some to be the top goalie prospect for 2020, pitching a 19-save shutout. Russia will meet the United States in a semifinal Saturday, a rematch of USA's 6-3 victory during the preliminary round.

Regardless of the result, Belarus can take solace in the fact that their quarterfinal appearance kept them in the top tournament for the third straight year. Previously, Belarus had failed to stay in the premier event for consecutive years until 2017, spending the six years prior between Division IA and IB. Forward Yegor Buyalsky and defensemen Vladislav Kolyachonok are expected to be drafted in June, which will continue what has been a three-year trend of draft picks coming from Belarus.

Czechs fight back, but Sweden continues on
Sweden's hopes of winning gold at the U-18s for the first time in team history are still alive thanks to a 4-2 win over the Czech Republic.

After goals 24 seconds apart by Sweden's Alexander Holtz and Elmer Soderblom, the Czechs found themselves chasing the game. That urgency was amped up further after Albin Grewe scored 27 seconds into the middle frame, forcing the Czechs to swap goaltender Lukas Parik with backup Jan Bednar. The Czechs were the better team in the second half of the game, however, with Marcel Barinka and Radek Muzik giving the Czechs life after capitalizing on giveaways by the Swedes.

The Czechs had chances late in the game, but were outshot 8-5 in the third thanks to a great shutdown effort by Tre Kronor. Oscar Bjerselius scoring an empty netter with 50 seconds remaining to clinch the victory for Sweden. For the Czechs, the loss marked a disappointing end to the junior year for the nation, which saw the team fail to grab a medal at the U-17s, World Junior A Challenge, World Junior Championship and the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament.

Jack Hughes (USA): Finally, someone took away the spotlight from Caufield, with Hughes scoring three in a big win.
2. Taylor Gauthier (CAN): A couple of big stops in a 38-save night kept Canada from losing a stunner.
3. Artur Silovs (LAT): Kept Latvia in the battle with an impressive 40-save contest.

Saturday, April 27
USA vs. Russia: 9:30 a.m. ET – Semifinal
Canada vs. Sweden: 1:30 p.m. ET — Semifinal


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