Silver Streak

U.S. Medals For Record 4th Straight Year At World Juniors
Chris Peters

Say one thing about the 2019 U.S. National Junior Team, they certainly had a flare for the dramatic. 

From the incredible third-period comebacks to a thrilling gold-medal game, there was no shortage of excitement at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship. While it didn't end the way the U.S. had dreamed it would, USA Hockey adds another feather to its cap when it comes to its history at the premier under-20 tournament.

Team USA lost a heartbreaker in the WJC final, dropping a 3-2 decision to Finland with the decisive goal coming late in regulation time. The Americans took home a silver medal, adding to an unprecedented medal streak that spans the last four World Junior Championships.

In the tense final, the U.S. had to claw back from a 2-0 deficit in the third period, something they had done before in the tournament. Goals from Sasha Chmelevski and Josh Norris leveled the Americans with the talented Finnish side. 

The brilliant goaltending of Cayden Primeau gave the Americans a chance, but a late goal-mouth scramble had the puck trickle to rising Finnish star Kaapo Kakko, who chipped the puck into the net to give Finland the 3-2 lead with just 1:26 to play in the game, leaving too little time for another American comeback.

"I'm disappointed in the outcome, but I'm not disappointed in that group from what they went through," said head coach Mike Hastings of his team.

The Americans did have to battle through some adversity that included top draft prospect Jack Hughes suffering an injury that forced him out for three games. An illness that swept through the U.S. locker room also forced some players to miss game action during the preliminary round. On top of that, the U.S. had multiple games where they had to overcome late deficits, most notably in an instant classic preliminary round matchup with Sweden.

"We've got a lot of heart," said Ryan Poehling, who was named the tournament's MVP after leading Team USA with eight points. "I'm proud of the group we had. We played hard. [Winning gold] is what we wanted, but it's what we didn't get. Whatever happened, I'm proud of the group."

It was Poehling who played the role of hero against Sweden, as the U.S. clawed back from a 4-0 deficit in the final 10 minutes of the third period. The Lakeville, Minn., native, who also won bronze with USA at the 2018 World Juniors, scored a natural hat trick in the final 6:35 of regulation to force overtime. Though the U.S. eventually lost that game in the extra period, that comeback instilled confidence that the team was never out of the hunt.

"It showed the character we have in the room," said captain Mikey Anderson. "To fight back was a big step for us."

The Americans finished second to Sweden in group play, then defeated the Czech Republic and perennial rival Russia in the playoff round to reach the gold-medal game with Finland, a team they had previously defeated 4-1 in the preliminary round. 

The Finns, however were more battle tested the second time around, having upset host Canada in the quarterfinals before rolling past Switzerland in the semis. Primeau stood tall making 28 saves on 31 shots, while Finnish netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 26 of 28 at the other end as both goaltenders shined in the final.

It was an epic battle between two countries that seem to be meeting a lot in these kinds of events. The U.S. and Finland have met in two of the last three World Men's Under-18 Championship finals with each winning once. 

Meanwhile, Finland is the only other country with three gold medals at the World Juniors over the last decade. These two countries should be seeing a lot more of each other at this rate.

While the American players may not have reached their ultimate goal, they did leave Vancouver with heads held high knowing that they continued building on a legacy of success established by the late Jim Johannson. And now, both the torch and medal streak have been passed to the next generation of players, and to John Vanbiesbrouck, who is carrying on that legacy as USA Hockey's new assistant executive director of Hockey Operations.

"It was a lot of fun being part of this team," said Jack Hughes, who along with older brother and U.S. teammate Quinn are a big part of that next generation of top American players. 

"This isn't how we wanted it to end. It's sad that we lost. Looking back on it in the future, it will probably be a good memory."

Hastings will have nothing but fond memories when he thinks of this team.

"It was a selfless group," he said. "We had a lot of different guys step up in different times. We weren't a top-heavy group, we didn't rely on two or three guys. 

"That's a credit to the group of five that came back [from the 2018 team], that leadership group setting the example and delivering the message from the coaching staff to everybody else. I'm proud of the progress this group had from start to finish."

The U.S. National Junior Team closed out the decade having won seven medals-three gold, a silver and three bronze. Only Russia finished the decade with more medals (eight), though the Americans and Finns top the gold medal leaderboard with three apiece since 2010.

"I'm proud that this team won a silver medal," Hastings said. 

"Jimmy Johannson's fingerprints are all over this silver medal. And now the torch has been passed to John Vanbiesbrouck, and he's obviously doing a great job. USA Hockey is in a great spot right now and those guys [in the U.S. locker room] are USA Hockey's future. And you can see that the future is bright." 

Chris Peters is the NHL Draft and Prospects Analyst for ESPN.





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