It wasn’t necessarily the medal the U.S. National Junior Team initially envisioned when the tournament started, but the Americans came home with well-deserved hardware.
Chaz Lucius scored three goals, including the game-winner in overtime, as the U.S. defeated Sweden to win the bronze medal at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship on Jan. 5 at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“Obviously, we would’ve rather been playing for a gold (medal), but we definitely had to dig in to get our bronze,” said head coach Rand Pecknold (Boston, Mass.). “It’s exciting. You don’t want to come into the final four and not get a medal, so we found a way.”
Team USA went 4-1-0-2 overall and won its 14th medal in tournament play, including its seventh bronze. The U.S. has won its last four bronze medal games, including three against Sweden. The IIHF has been hosting the World Juniors Championship since 1977 and 2023 marked the 47th running of the event.
“It’s better than not medaling or even making it to the medal round,” said forward Jimmy Snuggerud (Chaska, Minn.). “I think it shows how consistent USA Hockey really is. I think it’s something we pride ourselves upon.”
Logan Cooley (West Mifflin, Pa.) was the only U.S. player to finish with at least a point in every game, and he finished second in the tournament with seven goals and 14 points in seven games. Snuggerud followed with five goals and 13 points, while defenseman Ryan Ufko (Smithtown, N.Y.) ended with nine assists, besting Kevin Shattenkirk’s eight assists in 2009 for the most ever by a U.S. defenseman in a single tournament.
“It’s a highly-competitive group,” Pecknold said. “They’re high-character kids and they stayed with it.”
The U.S. started the tournament with a 5-2 win over Latvia before falling to Slovakia 6-3, and then rebounding for three straight wins against Switzerland, Finland and Germany, in which they outscored the opposition by a 22-4 margin.
“I just think in general, for the whole tournament, the players did a nice job,” Pecknold said. “As coaches, we were trying to build as we went because you don’t have a lot of practice time before you get here. We did a nice job of building.”
That build up led to a showdown with Canada in the tournament semifinals.
Cooley and Kenny Connors (Glen Mills, Pa.) helped the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes, but Canada rallied and took the lead at 5:46 of the second period. Jackson Blake (Fargo, N.D.) appeared to tie the game less than two minutes later, but the goal was waived off because of goaltender interference.
Canada held a 4-2 lead entering the third, and Rutger McGroarty (Lincoln, Neb.) appeared to score 38 seconds into the third period, but another video review eliminated the goal. Canada scored two more goals to set the final, sending the U.S. to the bronze medal game.
“We went up 2-0, but we didn’t necessarily keep our intensity or our defensive game up,” Snuggerud said. “It changes the whole momentum of the game calling those goals off, but it was something you can’t really change. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”
Despite the disappointing result, Pecknold was pleased with his team’s effort, as the U.S. outshot Canada 45-37.
“I thought we played well and I thought we had a ton of chances,” Pecknold said. “Obviously, the two goals getting called back was probably the key momentum swing of the game.”
The U.S. had a chance at redemption during the bronze medal game against Sweden. Both teams combined for 15 goals during the back-and-forth overtime thriller, as Lucius led the way with a hat trick and scored the game-winner.
The U.S. held leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 5-3 before Sweden rallied with the next three goals to take a 6-5 advantage four minutes into the third period. Captain Luke Hughes (Canton, Mich.) tied it at 6-6 with a spinning goal from his knees and Cutter Gauthier (Scottsdale, Ariz.) scored with 1:37 to play for the 7-6 lead. Sweden forced overtime, however, scoring with 21.4 seconds left in regulation.
Lucius came away as the hero, scoring 2:06 into overtime to finish the frenzy and allow the U.S. to bring home a bronze with the 8-7 victory.
“It was emotional and there were a lot of ebbs and flows and ups and downs with that game,” Pecknold said. “It’s hard for both teams to get up for a bronze medal game because you want to play for gold, but I think we did a good job and found a way to win.”
Pecknold was proud of his team’s resolve, particularly its ability to earn a medal in a wild game against Sweden, while coming off the heels of a difficult defeat against Canada one night earlier.
“I was really happy with the whole tournament,” Pecknold said. “I thought our players displayed high character, they were resilient; it was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.