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US Road to Gold Ends in Loss to Sweden

United States v Sweden: Semifinals - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

Welp, sadly my notes from this evening’s game are now more of an obituary. The United States will take on the Czech Republic tomorrow for a bronze medal. But the game means little more than whether the answer to a trivia question next year is the US winning x medals in y years, or x+1. Gold is the goal for the United States, and this year’s team came up short in a 4-2 loss to Sweden in the semifinals on Thursday.

The loss is without question disappointing. There’s something special about the intensity of playing for, and winning a gold medal at this event, and this year’s team as much as any US team, had a great chance to do it.

But despite the disappointment, I wouldn’t say I’m upset. It’s a single-elimination tournament with four to five teams that are all good enough to make the margins incredibly small. Winning this tournament two years in a row is incredibly difficult, and takes more than a few breaks. It just didn’t happen for the US this year.

If last year’s team—which left some really talented scorers at home—had lost a game like this, I would have been furious. But this year, I’ll walk away feeling like the US took their best shot, and it just didn’t work out. They didn’t play poorly. On possession alone, they were probably better than every team they played, Sweden included. But they just couldn’t get the puck into the net when it counted most.

A few notes from the game:

-However you want to nitpick things, the bottom line is the United States was a really great possession team, but just didn’t have the finishing ability they needed. That was the case in the prelim round loss to Slovakia, it was almost the case against Russia when they couldn’t put the game away in the first two periods, and it was finally fatal on Thursday.

I hate this excuse because lots of teams lose people to the NHL—it was an abnormally diverse year with Canada, the US, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and even Switzerland missing players—but the absence of Clayton Keller was really felt throughout the tournament, and especially after Logan Brown went down. Casey Mittelstadt performed admirably as the guy carrying the offense. A 4-6-10 stat line over six games with 20 shots on goal is as good as you can ask for without some serious luck being involved. But adding another great offensive playmaker that could get teammates involved and make them better would have been huge for this team.

-Once again, I loved the start for the US team. They were able to establish themselves in the offensive zone and grind on the Swedes quite a bit, especially with their top line. But they were never able to capitalize on it.

If there was a key moment in the game to me, Mittestadt made a great cross-crease pass to Joey Anderson parked in front of the net in that first period, and Anderson just wasn’t able to get a stick on it. That’s always a harder play than it looks, but is the type of play that Anderson makes his living off of by being strong and steady with his stick.

A 1-0 lead changes the complexion of the game so much. It would have given them some momentum, and despite the outdoor comeback against Canada, I think this team was so much better when they could play from ahead, because they lacked offensive firepower.

-I thought Joe Woll gave the US exactly what they needed in net. He was solid throughout, and bought they them an extra 20 minutes or so to get that first goal by stealing one from the Swedes.

Same goes for the semibreakaway he stopped against Isac Lundestrom early in the second period.

-But ultimately, there’s too much skill out on the ice to hold these good teams off the scoreboard forever. Sweden took advantage of about three mistakes during a US penalty kill and got the all-important first goal. It wasn’t pretty, but it happens in a tournament like this where there’s a bunch of young kids and a lot of talent that can capitalize on those types of minor mistakes. Ultimately, teams have to be able to recover from that and punch back. The US wasn’t able to do this.

-There’s going to be a lot of talk about the missed 3-on-0 late in the second period.

With Mittelstadt cutting across the crease and taking the goalie with him, all he has to do is drop the puck off to Tkachuk and it’s a tap-in goal. But that’s such a quick-developing play with the Swedes so close behind coming off the bench, that that play is near impossible to pull off at 100mph. Mittelstadt said he wasn’t even aware that it was a 3-on-0.

-That second goal was the back-breaker. The US got a power play shortly after, but you could just tell that they felt like they didn’t have the gas to make a comeback. Even before giving up the two short-handed goals, they looked sloppy and lifeless on that power play. The US made it kind of interesting with a couple late goals, but it just wasn’t their day.

-I like their chances in tomorrow’s bronze medal game. The Czechs are playing for their first medal in forever, but with a top-heavy line-up, short turnaround, and heavy reliance on a goalie that has been very busy twice in the last three days, I could see the US having a lot more in the tank.