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Women’s World U18s Gold Medal Game: United States vs. Sweden

USA v Canada - 2016 IIHF U18 Women's World Championships Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

What: Women’s World U18 Championships Gold Medal Game

Who: US vs. Sweden

When: Saturday, 11:30am EST

Where: Dmitrov, Russia

How Do I Watch: A free YouTube livestream here.

Everyone familiar with US hockey lore knows the story. After defeating the Russians in the 1980 Olympics, the Miracle on Ice team still had to defeat Finland two days later to earn their gold medal, or they risked falling out of medal contention at all.

That’s not quite the circumstance here. Team USA’s victory over Canada in yesterday’s semifinal was far from a miracle, though one could be excused for thinking the US needed a miracle sometime during the second intermission of that game. And the US can’t go home without a medal. But really, in the position US women’s hockey is in, every tournament is either gold or bust. If they don’t win tomorrow, it will be a crushing, crushing disappointment.

Standing in their way is Sweden, who won a tough, grinding game against host Russia in the other semifinal on Friday. The Swedes are a step down talentwise from Canada, but that doesn’t mean the game will be easy. Sweden took the United States to overtime on the first day of the tournament in a game that ended regulation tied 1-1 before the US won in overtime.

Ideally, that is the type of game that Sweden wants to play again. Very low-scoring and then hope they can catch a lucky bounce at the right time. They don’t want to get into a high-scoring track meet with the US because there is no way they can keep up. In fact, I think the magic number for the US offense tomorrow is two goals. Get to there, and I don’t think Sweden can keep up.

The way Sweden is going to try to slow the US down is by playing an ultra-conservative style. There were long stretches of 5-on-5 play in the first meeting that looked like a US power play with the way they were able to set up on the perimeter while Sweden backed off into a tight box in front of their crease. Expect to see a lot of this:

Also, not that Sweden necessarily wants to keep the puck on their end of the ice, but the fact that they’ll spend most of their game in the defensive zone, means it will be much easier to keep all five girls on the defensive side of the puck and eliminate opportunities for the US to attack off the rush, where they speed could be really deadly.

It’s going to be tough to get pucks through to the net, and when they do, Sweden has an exceptional goalie in Anna Amholt. Amholt is a big goalie that is really tough to beat from distance.

That said, there are reasons to believe we won’t see a repeat of the first game when Sweden frustrated and slowed down the US offense so much. The biggest one was that they met on the first day of the tournament, and it felt like the US was still figuring things out a little bit. They weren’t as crisp as they needed to be in their puck movement against a defense that required surgical precision. That first game was also before the US put together the line of Curl-Heise-Petrie as their second line, which I think has been a real difference-maker for them. Overall, they’re a much better offensive team than they were in that first game.

On the downside, I thought the US power play looked really ugly in the game against Canada. The pace should slow down a step against Sweden, so hopefully that helps. But if they can execute that a little better, it could be very important.

There is always potential for a let down after a big win like yesterday. The US has never had the experience of needing to play another game after Canada in the medal round, since they’ve always met for the gold medal at this tournament.

But with what is at stake, I think the US will get the job done. There’s too much talent on the US roster than I can’t see Sweden being able to hold up for a full 60 minutes. It may take a while, but I think eventually the US is able to break through the dam and win by a score somewhere in the 3-1 or 4-1 range.