International Ice Hockey Federation

U.S. to face Finns for gold

U.S. to face Finns for gold

Hughes line quashes Czech hopes in semi-finals

Published 28.04.2018 23:02 GMT+5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
U.S. to face Finns for gold
CHELYABINSK, RUSSIA - APRIL 28: USA's Jack Hughes #6 celebrates his first period goal against Czech Republic during semifinal round action at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
The defending champs are one win away. The U.S. downed a gutsy Czech squad 4-1 in the semi-finals to move on to Sunday's gold medal game against Finland.

It'll be a tough matchup for coach Seth Appert's boys. Finland is the only nation to appear in the gold medal game every year since 2015, and Suomi will be hungry for revenge after losing the 2015 and 2017 finals to the Americans.

"They’re pretty deep with elite forwards," said Appert. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for Finland, their federation, how good they are every year, how well-prepared they are. We know we’ll be in for a dogfight tomorrow night."

Loaded with speed and skill, the Americans are playing in their ninth final in the last 10 years. They're going for their eighth gold in 10 years and 11th overall. They had their ups and downs in the preliminary round, but now appear to be on cruise control.

"When we play united as a team, I don’t think there’s any country that can stop us," said Jacob Wise. "That’s the most important thing. Just grind them out."

Czech goalie Lukas Dostal put in another excellent effort, but even with 43 saves, he couldn’t mastermind another upset like the quarter-final ouster of Canada. Spencer Knight won his second straight playoff start with 16 stops.

There was an element of woulda, could, and shoulda for the Czechs. Even though they were outshot by a 30-shot margin, many of their chances were magnificent -- especially in the first period before the Americans took over in the middle frame.

"We weren't as ready mentally as we were in the last game," said Czech coach David Bruk. "After great defensive play against Canada, [our guys] got a little overconfident and didn't play the same way."

The top U.S. forward line imposed its will. Oliver Wahlstrom led the way with a goal and an assist. Jack Hughes, who has dominated this tournament at the tender age of 16, also scored for the Americans. Their linemate Joel Farrabee had two assists.

Wahlstrom and Farabee are both appearing in their second consecutive U18 final and know the Finnish style well.

"In our first two games of this tournament against Canada and Switzerland, I thought we played immaturely, but they didn’t," said Appert of Wahlstrom and Farabee. "And it was funny: as a coaching staff, you look and say: ‘The two guys that seem real settled are the guys that have been through this before.’ They’ve given us a great presence. They’re very different players, but they’re both world-class players in their own right, how they go about their business."

Spencer Stastney chipped in a goal and a helper, and Tyler Weiss had the other U.S. goal.

Captain Libor Zabransky replied for the Czechs, who will battle Sweden for the bronze.

"If this team wants to be successful, we need to play defensively, because our offense isn't scoring too many goals," said Bruk. "We are getting two goals per game, maximum. So, solid defense and good goaltending will give us a chance to win."

It was another packed house in Chelyabinsk as the crowd of 6,459 banged its noisemakers and urged the underdog Czechs on.

The U.S. drew first blood at 3:37 with good forechecking, as Hughes took over sole possession of the tournament scoring lead (12 points). After Farrabee got the puck on the side boards, Hughes got a centering pass from Wahlstrom, and the diminutive wunderkind used defenceman Vojtech Doktor as a diversion as he cut to the slot and slid the puck past Dostal’s left skate.

Just past the halfway mark of the first, the U.S. got caught on a bad line change and Knight stymied Czech assistant captain Jakob Lauko on a breakaway.

The plethora of chances continued. Pressing hard in the offensive zone, the Czechs drew stick fouls and got a 5-on-3. Karel Plasek misfired on a glorious opportunity, wide open to Knight’s right. Late in the opening stanza, American forward Jacob Pivonka, the son of former Czechoslovakian NHL star Michal Pivonka, hit the post, and Dostal stood his ground when Farabee dipsy-doodled through the Czech defence. Lauko misfired in tight just before the buzzer.

The Americans came out storming in the second period. Off a faceoff in the U.S. end, the Hughes line exploded down the ice. Farabee, from his knees, found Wahlstrom blitzing through the neutral zone and his shot soared past Dostal at 1:04 to make it 2-0. Wahlstrom's seventh goal tied him with Finland's Niklas Nordgren for the tournament lead. He's raised his NHL draft stock by scoring in each game.

"That’s our best line," said Weiss. "They’re super-fast. They set the tone early for us, and we just followed them."

Dostal provided a spark when he made a glove save on Wahlstrom’s penalty shot at 8:28 after Doktor was caught covering the puck in the crease with his glove. The Czechs killed off a subsequent power play, and then they got an odd-man rush that bore fruit.

Jenik lost the puck in the high slot, but Zabransky picked it up, and the captain caught Knight moving the wrong way. He fired it inside the goalie’s right post to the joy of the pro-Czech crowd. That was the high point for Bruk's crew.

Dostal stopped Hughes in cold at the 14-minute mark, but he couldn’t track Stastney’s low wrister from the centre point with heavy traffic in front for a 3-1 U.S. lead at 15:47.

"We got some guys crashing the net and I threw one in there," said Stastney. "It was huge for us."

Jakub Adamek took a late roughing minor and Dostal made a great reflex save with his right pad when Hughes’s shot bounced off Zack Malik’s leg. Then Knight came up big when Matej Blumel got a breakaway chance at the end of the second period.

At 2:48, Weiss put the game out of reach, curling out of the corner and sniping one high to the short side on Dostal to make it 4-1. The Americans finished off with a solid defensive effort to wrap up this semi-final triumph.

"I thought Dostal was fabulous in net for them and he made some great saves on Weiss," said Appert. "Weiss hit a post as well. It was nice to see Tyler get one."

Of facing Finland, Appert added: "Certainly by the looks of their game today, letting them get out to a lead on you is not a recipe for success with how well they defended that 2-0 lead. Eighty percent of the focus will be on us. We’ll tweak 10 or 20 percent of the game based on our opponents."

 

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