After a thrilling 5-1 victory over rival Canada in the semifinals, the U.S. National Junior Team sets its sights on the last hurdle in the form of Sweden whom Team USA will face on Saturday at 8 a.m. ET in the IIHF World Junior Championship gold medal game in Ufa, Russa.
The game will be the first time ever that Team USA and Sweden have squared off for the gold medal in the tournament's history.
The teams met in exhibition prior to the tournament, but that game seems like a lifetime ago for the players and Riley Barber said each team is improved and different from when they last met.
"The exhibition game really means nothing," he said. "They've been playing great so far and so have we so we're just going to work hard for the next game."
What has transpired between the 3-2 overtime U.S. win on Dec. 20 and today is a complex combination of victories, defeats and bonding on each team. The key for Team USA, head coach Phil Housley said, is that they have continued steady improvement and appear to be peaking at the right moment.
"I think each game we've gotten better," he said. "Our goaltending has been great. We're getting opportunistic scoring from our forwards."
The teams match up well in many areas. In goaltending, the Americans have relied on the solid play of John Gibson, who leads the tournament in save percentage (95.43), minutes played (338) and goals against average (1.42) among those who have played at least 40% of their team's games.
Sweden will counter with two goaltenders who have split time, but it was Niklas Lundstrom who played in the semifinals against Russia. He leads Sweden with a 1.45 goals against average and a 94.59 save percentage, which trails Gibson only in the event.
Sweden's top scorers are Emil Molin (2-4-6) and Sebastian Collberg (4-2-6). Filip Forsberg is a threat as well and his five points have been tallied while leading the team with 28 shots in the tournament. He is a dynamic playmaker and will be a player to watch on Saturday.
Sweden swept its group with wins over Latvia, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Finland to earn the bye to the semifinals where they edged host Russia in a shootout to reach the title game. This team has many players who have faced the U.S. in the IIHF World Under-18 Championship gold medal games the last two years, both won by Team USA.
Seth Jones, who captained last year's Under-18 National Team to a world title that included a 7-0 shutout of Sweden in the final, said he and his teammates are familiar with the players they'll face on Saturday.
"They're a great team and we expect the most from them," he said. "This will be my third gold medal game against Sweden."
Team USA and Team Sweden have squared off in the last two IIHF Under-18 World Championship gold medal games. On April 24, 2011, in Crimmitschau,
Germany, the U.S. topped Sweden, 4-3, in overtime to capture gold. The
U.S. overcame a 3-1 deficit in the third period. Connor Murphy had two goals, including the game-winner, and Jacob Trouba also scored. John Gibson was the winning goalie. That U.S. team also included current U.S. National Junior Team members Tyler Biggs, Seth Jones, J.T. Miller, Jake McCabe, Rocco Grimaldi, Blake Pietila and Cole Bardreau.
After a quiet first three games in the tournament, U.S. forward John Gaudreau has exploded with 7 goals in the last three games including a hat trick against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.
"It's just a great time for the team to come together," he said. "This morning [Housley] was right after us and telling us that we have one more game to play and he has us focused on that"
Gaudreau leads the team with nine points followed by teammates Jacob Trouba, J.T. Miller and Alex Galchenyuk at eight points and Seth Jones with seven.
The Americans spread the points around with a balanced attack that has even resulted in two assists for Gibson.
After defeating their rival Canada, Team USA took the night to celebrate and enjoy the victory but on Friday morning Housley turned his team's focus to their ultimate prize.
"We can't get too high on that win" said defenseman Mike Reilly. "That's done, we're not worried about them, we're worried about Sweden now."