When posing for a championship photo, it’s a matter of practice for members of the winning team to proudly hold up their index fingers to signify that they sit alone atop of the hockey world.
But for members of the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team, it was appropriate to break custom by holding aloft four digits after its latest conquest.
With a 7-0 victory over Sweden in the gold-medal game at the 2012 IIHF Men’s World Under-18 Championship, Team USA had captured its fourth consecutive title at the event, the first U.S. National
Team of any sort to execute such a streak.
And as it turns out, the number four was of further significance to the U.S. Under-18 squad.
Team USA allowed just four goals in the tournament, the lowest total for any team in the 13-year history of the event, en route to a 6-0-0-0 record.
The U.S. was also able to compile four shutouts, including three from Collin Olson, which tied the tournament record set by American Jack Campbell in 2010.
“I was confident going in, but never would have expected those results,” said Olson, who became the third straight American netminder to receive the directorate award as the tournament’s best goaltender.
Olson collected a stunning 0.80 goals-against average and a .965 save percentage, allowing just two goals at even strength.
However, Olson was quick to deflect praise to his teammates for his success. After all, the defense had allowed just 133 shots over six games, 31 less than the next closest opponent in the tournament.
“Going out on the ice with the team that I had, [I wasn’t] worried,” said the Apple Valley, Minn., native.
“All seven of the defensemen we brought played unbelievable. All of the forwards, even if they don’t realize it – playing our system – you get over the red line, you shoot the puck in and go forecheck hard, that’s 30-40 seconds the puck’s not in our end and [the opponent’s] not scoring.”
The forwards also did the job offensively, scoring 20 of Team USA’s 27 goals in the tournament. Nic Kerdiles was the team’s leading goal scorer with, ahem, four tallies, to go along with a team-high nine points.
Still, Team USA’s defensive corps, including highly-touted prospects Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba, Brady Skjei, Patrick Sieloff, Matt Grzelcyk, Connor Carrick and Will Butcher, were the talk of the tournament.
“Once we got a lead on a team, there was no way we were going to give it up,”
“Over the course of two years, we were a pretty good defensive team,” said Danton Cole, who coached many of Team USA’s players at the National Team Development Program before leading them to gold in Brno, Czech Republic.
“When the goaltending was on and when we stayed out of the box, we really limited teams’ ability to score against us. The goalies played very well in the tournament, and we weren’t in the box hardly at all. That took care of two really big aspects.”
The U.S. was the least penalized team in the tournament, in fact, and killed off 90.9 percent of the penalties it did take. Such disciplined play allowed Team USA to play with even more confidence.
“Once we got a lead on a team, there was no way we were going to give it up,” said Skjei, who finished with a team-high plus-10 rating.
To dominate the way the U.S. did in this tournament, it required a true team effort.
“You can go back to any championship team I’ve been lucky enough to be around and the one thing that there ends up being, through the tournament or the playoffs or whatever situation, is a high level of camaraderie that the guys have and complete disregard for personal achievement,” said Cole, who enjoyed an 11-year professional career before turning to coaching in 1999.
That camaraderie also gave way to tremendous depth, according to Trouba.
“Our team never really had the superstar player,” said the likely first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. “We were all fighting and all battling for each other. That really helped us push each other.”
Team USA’s magic number managed to pop up once more, this time on the back of Jones’ jersey as the big No. 4 accepted the championship trophy and hoisted it skyward, capping the most dominant performance in World Under-18 Championship history and adding a record seventh trophy to the U18 mantle for USA Hockey.
“You make friendships with this group of guys that will last your lifetime,” said Jones, who served as the team’s captain.
“It’s unbelievable to win something like that with your teammates.”