Sweden the better team in semifinal 4-2 win over USA


In the first semifinal, it was Sweden that was the better team. There won’t be a repeat. USA fell to Sweden 4-2 at the IIHF U20 World Junior Championship at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Buoyed by a stellar 29 save performance from goalie Filip Gustavsson, the Swedes were able to settle in and play their game following a unimpressive first period in which the Americans outshot and outchanced them. Gustavsson (Penguins) was there to make key stops keeping it scoreless.

One of the biggest differences was special teams. Time and again, Sweden took undisciplined penalties to give USA looks. Unlike the previous games, they were unable to take advantage. The Swedes did a good job getting sticks in passing and shooting lanes. When USA got shots through, Gustavsson made the saves.

With it a tight checking contest that turned more into a neutral zone battle as it progressed, it was a USA penalty that tilted the game in Sweden’s direction. Having killed off the previous two, they were unable to be successful on number three. A nice Alexander Nylander pass across to Elias Pettersson resulted in the Canucks 2016 fifth overall pick wiring one top shelf far post by Joseph Woll (Maple Leafs). That was the lone goal through two periods.

Despite a strong pushback from USA, they were unable to get the game tied. They certainly had their chances. There was a 3-on-0 break in which the dangerous trio of Casey Mittlestadt, Brady Tkachuk and Kieffer Bellows came in on Gustavsson. But Mittlestadt decided to take the shot which Gustavsson kicked out with Bellows crashing into him for goaltender interference. It was a pivotal moment.

There was also a great shift where the Americans had sustained pressure in the Sweden zone for over a minute. But despite the opportunity, they never could beat Gustavsson, who was a brick wall. He also denied a Bellows shot point blank with a great skate save. Bellows was USA’s top scoring threat due to his combination of speed, shot and skating ability. The Islanders prospect looks like a good one.

Still trailing in the third, USA began to take risks to get the game tied. As often happens against a stingy opponent getting great goaltending, they made some costly mistakes.

A bad pinch led to a two-on-one for Sweden with Rangers 2017 first round pick Lias Andersson tapping one home for a 2-0 lead. A well executed play by a patient team who was very methodical.

They could afford to be protecting a lead. At some point, the Americans got frustrated by the Swedes. It showed in a ugly third that saw Sweden score not one but two shorthanded goals on one power play.

USA defenseman Adam Fox got caught at the Sweden blue line causing a odd man rush. On it, Oskar Steen made no mistake blowing a shorthanded goal past Woll for a 3-0 lead.

Any thoughts of a American comeback got dashed when Axel Jonsson Fjallby took advantage of soft USA play in the neutral zone. His high shot chased Woll to put Sweden comfortably up 4-0 only 38 seconds later. Jake Oettinger replaced him. It was his first appearance since the epic 4-3 shootout comeback win over Canada outdoors in the snow.

With 10 minutes left, the game was realistically over. But to their credit, USA never gave up. It’s not in their DNA.

Instead, Bellows finally tallied his tournament best seventh when he took a pass in front and beat Gustavsson with a nice move and shot top shelf to get USA on the board.

Before you knew it, Brady Tkachuk made it 4-2 when he was set up in front to suddenly make it a close contest with still over three minutes to go.

Even crazier, Sweden took a penalty to hand them a power play. Ultimately, they weren’t able to get any closer. Mittlestadt had a great opportunity in the slot but was somehow robbed by Gustavsson, who got just enough of a high labeler to keep it out.

For seemingly no reason with the game decided, Steen cheap shotted Oilers prospect Kailer Yamamoto by giving him a chop to the leg with just over four seconds left. It was despicable. Yamamoto was in real pain and needed help getting off the ice.

Steen is a Bruins draft pick. I guess it makes a little sense. He won’t win any new fans with that dirty display.

When the game concluded, they had the cool postgame ceremony on the ice. USA’s top three players were selected. To the surprise of no one, they were Bellows, Mittlestadt and Fox. A good offensive defenseman who plays similarly to Brian Rafalski. I could’ve made a case for Tkachuk, who should definitely go in the top 10 in the 2018 NHL Draft. He maybe better than older brother Matthew, who stars for the Flames.

Here is my favorite Bellows moment from this tournament. None other than a celly with him celebrating a goal while a fan is wearing his Dad’s Classic North Stars Jersey.

Sweden’s top three are Andersson, Nylander and projected top overall pick Rasmus Dahlin. Dahlin was a beast in this game with his unreal skating creating plenty of chances while playing superb defensively. He might be better than Victor Hedman. The last big name Swedish defenseman who went in the top three in the famed 2009 Draft.

Sweden will play for the gold medal tomorrow. They’ll await the winner between underdog Czech Republic and Canada. That gets underway at 8 EST on NHL Network, who again have done a outstanding job covering the top prospects.

I liked what USA Hockey coach Bob Motzko said afterwards. When discussing what went wrong with Jill Savage, he indicated that his team didn’t have the same jump. But he also was quick to point out that they have to move on because there’s another game Friday. They play for bronze. Something he wants his players to focus on making American fans proud.

Sure. It’s disappointing they won’t have the chance to repeat. A potential USA-Canada rematch for gold would’ve been priceless. But it wasn’t to be. Sometimes, you get beat.

Full credit to Sweden. They earned it. I won’t be surprised if they win gold. They’re a frustrating team to play. They should be a handful for whoever they face tomorrow night.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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