The Americans were not fazed, however, as they were convinced they would end the tournament winning gold.
“In the room, we were talking about what a story it’s going to be when we come back,” said tournament MVP Will Smith. “We all got fired up when we were down 2-0, getting ready to go out for the third. We believed in each other and then we went out there and did it.”
The U.S. rallied from that two-goal deficit to earn a 3-2 overtime victory against Sweden.
This is the first U18 Men’s Worlds gold for the United States since 2017, its longest stretch without a top-of-the podium finish since the inaugural tournament, held in 1999. The gold medal was the 11th for the United States, the most of any competing nation.
The Americans finished the tournament undefeated with six regulation wins and the all-important overtime clincher. The golden goal was the 51st for Team USA, which tied the record for most in a single tournament.
“There’s nothing better than to be able to represent your country on the international stage,” said head coach Dan Muse. “It’s such a huge honor and this was a really special group of young men. They wanted to help USA Hockey continue to take another step. We wanted to represent the best we possibly could, and we’re thrilled it resulted in a gold medal.”
This gold had extra significance after the Swedes defeated the U.S. in the 2022 gold-medal game.
Goaltender Trey Augustine remembered that game well. Augustine was also in goal when the U.S. claimed bronze at the recent 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, but he was able to earn his long-awaited gold with a payback win against Sweden.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Augustine said. “I was excited, and I was also excited for my team to end on a great note like that. We kind of had a rough time last year, but to rally from that and hoist the championship trophy meant a lot for our group.”
Augustine, one of the top goaltenders in the 2023 NHL Draft class, is committed to play college hockey at Michigan State. Muse called Augustine a calming presence in goal for the team.
“He’s a rock back there and he puts in the work every day,” Muse said. “Everybody is talented at this level, but he never takes a day off, and it’s not just the work, but the way he goes about his work. It’s a huge pressure situation for any 18-year-old to be in, but he’s mature way beyond his years.”
Smith said Augustine served as the backbone of the team.
“He’s the best goalie in the world,” Smith said. “He kept us in so many games this year. It was huge for our team to make sure that we were going to get the gold back for him. We know how much he’s done for us, so it was pretty cool to finally get him that gold medal.”
Smith and teammate Cole Eiserman both scored nine goals, tied for most in the tournament. Smith’s 20 points also matched a U.S. tournament record, set in 2019 by current New Jersey Devils star Jack Hughes.
“I think it’s pretty cool to be in the same conversation with those guys, especially at the tournament,” Smith said. “But none of the records would’ve mattered to me unless we won, and we won, so I think we have to celebrate everything.”
Smith, who is expected to be a top-5 pick at the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville this summer, is committed to play at Boston College.
Muse was especially impressed with Smith’s performance on such a big stage.
“You see the stats he put up, and he’s been doing it all year, but it’s harder to do it in that setting,” Muse said. “There’s extra pressure to do it in that kind of a setting, but he had a fantastic tournament. He gets a lot of credit for his stats, but he plays extremely well on both sides of the puck, which forces everybody to do those kinds of things.”
The U.S. went to work early in the tournament with several lopsided wins, scoring at least seven goals in all four games in the preliminary round. Team USA outscored Latvia, Norway, Finland and Switzerland by a 37-6 margin.
The U.S. finished off Czechia in the third period for a 4-1 victory in the quarterfinals before a six-goal win versus Slovakia in the semifinals — setting up the gold-medal rematch against Sweden.
“I’m really proud of this group,” Muse said. “At the beginning of the tournament, we wanted to focus on getting a little better every day throughout the tournament and I thought the guys did that.”
Sweden scored a goal in the first period of the gold-medal game and added a power-play tally in the second to take a 2-0 lead through two periods, but the U.S. wasn’t finished.
“I don’t think we played bad throughout the first two periods,” Augustine said. “We were gripping the sticks a little too tight. Obviously, at the start of the third period, we knew we had to give it all our and leave everything out on the ice.”
“I think everyone on the rink could feel the momentum changing in the third period,” Smith said. “We kind of fed off that after Zeev hit the post. We had the feeling that one was going to come soon.”
Danny Nelson redirected a Buium shot across the line at 9:44 of the third period to make it a 2-1 game and give Team USA life. Smith’s 20th point of the tournament was a secondary assist, but it helped set up the tying goal from Carey Terrance, who redirected Eiserman’s shot in front.
“I loved the way the guys played in the third period,” Muse said. “It was very much in line with how I expected them to come out. Every guy on that bench believed we were going to find a way to get the job done.”
But the job wasn’t finished. The U.S. was forced to kill a penalty at the end of the third period and the start of overtime. Once the penalty expired, the U.S. put the game away.
“It happened so fast that you don’t even really remember it,” Smith said. “We got to sing our national anthem, that’s always special, but we were just with family, just kind of soaking it all in. We wore our jerseys and medals the whole night.”
The gold medal-winning moment didn’t fully sink in for Smith and Augustine until a few days later when the group said its goodbyes.
Even though they’ll be at different colleges across the country, and potentially the NHL someday, this team will be forever linked by the championship it won against Sweden.
“We certainly had a lot of individual and team accomplishments throughout the regular season, but we didn’t want to be remembered for that,” Augustine said. “We wanted to be remembered as gold medal-winning champions. To be able to come back, get together to celebrate, and see the guys before we go our separate ways means a lot.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.