Monday, January 4, 2010

USA comes back to beat Sweden, play Canada for Gold

Maybe someone forgot to tell Team USA that they were supposed to roll over at the sight of a more experienced Swedish team that was expected to challenge Canada for the gold. Playing for a second consecutive day against a rested and favored Sweden, USA took their best punch to string the upset- coming back to win the second 2010 WJC semifinal 5-2.

By scoring four unanswered and eliminating a very good team, it allowed the Americans to advance to a rematch with Canada. They played the best game of the tournament on New Year's Eve with the hosts digging out of a 4-2 hole to win 5-4 in a shootout. That time, it just determined who won Group A. Tomorrow night, the stakes are a lot higher with the two North American rivals vowing for a gold medal in Saskatoon. For Team USA, it's the first time they'll be vying for the WJC championship since 2004 when they came back from a 3-1 deficit to stun Canada 4-3. The infamous game where Marc-Andre Fleury misplayed a puck off teammate Braydon Coburn and in for the decider. Now, a new chapter will be written.

It sure wasn't easy getting to this point for Dean Blais's scrappy bunch who were decidedly outplayed in a flat second period that saw Sweden use their superlative skill to go in front. Consecutive goals by Anton Lander eight minutes apart off rebounds erased an early USA one-goal lead. Only 84 seconds in, Tyler Johnson took full advantage of a forced turnover by teammate Kyle Palmeiri to bury the chance. In a period they started strong in holding an 11-8 shots edge, they allowed Sweden to mount a good attack for the second half, leading to a few chances which steady netminder Mike Lee stopped in their tracks. Oddly enough, he became the story over last year's top goalie Jacob Markstrom. He didn't make as many saves as his counterpart but when called upon, Lee was cool finishing with 27 stops.

Sweden came close to tying it but a shot rang off the far post. They were just getting started. Using their speed and skill, last year's runner-up came in waves at a shaky USA who had problems dealing with the Swede's attack. Eventually, Lander got it tied when he rebounded home an Anton Rodin shot at 4:17 of the second. Peter Andersson started the rush and fed Rodin, who took a tricky low shot on Lee that caromed right to Lander for the gimme. With renewed confidence, Sweden killed off back-to-back American power plays, even using their aggressiveness to generated shorthanded chances. Superb work done by Magnus Paarjavi Svensson, Marcus Kruger and Jacob Josefson.

Unable to rebuild momentum from special teams, Team USA continued to be a couple of steps behind. Only some last second backchecks, blocked shots and Lee saves kept it tied. However, they couldn't hold off Sweden for long with Lander again striking for his second off a similar play. This time, Jakub Silfverberg forced Derek Stepan into a turnover, allowing Rodin to come out with the puck. He outmuscled Stepan releasing another low shot which Lee kicked out. But nobody took Lander, who deposited the garbage for a 2-1 Swedish lead.

At that point, it seemed like Sweden would prevail. Then Blais sent out Luke Walker for a momentum turning shift. During a scrum, the gritty Walker got into it with Martin Lundberg. Each received matching roughing minors. The unsigned kid who impressed in Ranger camp, seemed to envigorate his teammates. On the very next shift, they tied it 64 seconds later when Jeff D'Amigo finished off a two-on-one with John Carlson for the first of two on the night. A smart defensive read by Jake Gardiner behind his net got it started, feeding Carlson who then dished off for a streaking D'Amigo in the neutral zone. He then undressed David Runblad before beating Markstrom thru the pads for a huge goal with less than five minutes left.

"This is a great opportunity for us to show that we're a good team and we're here to win gold," explained the hero who was tabbed as his team's top star for his two goal performance.

Team USA hung tough after Stepan took an undisciplined minor for delay of game, relying on solid penalty killing and timely Lee saves to keep it all knotted with one period left in regulation. As the game developed, it became chippy with players from both sides mixing it up, including captain Stepan who tried to lead by example following a hard shift. Perhaps that bothered their opponent because just 39 seconds into the third, captain Marcus Johansson received a major and game misconduct for hitting a player from behind. The Swedes lost one of their best players but still managed to kill off the major. Draft eligible defenseman Cam Fowler came close a couple of times but couldn't beat Markstrom, who also got help on a point blank opportunity from his D. A Fowler slash gave the Swedes a man-advantage but they couldn't capitalize either.

With the game still tied, something changed. Suddenly, Sweden stopped attacking. Part of it was due to the US team defense with everyone coming back. Svensson used his skating to generate a couple of quality chances including a backhand wrap try Lee snuffed out. But his team just didn't come as hard. Mattias Tedenby was invisible finishing with no shots and a minus-three rating.

Instead, it was Team USA who were more poised, finally using some grunt work to surge ahead when Carlson connected from the right point with 7:26 remaining. It started with Jeremy Morin winning a battle in the corner to keep the play alive, eventually getting the puck to a vacated Carlson. He patiently waited before firing an innocent wrister which fooled Markstrom due in large part to Chris Kreider, who was in the vicinity screening. A goal Markstrom should've had instead gave the Americans a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Ryan Bourque, who had an inspired PK shift earlier in the stanza, took a delay of game minor- giving the Swedes one more chance. All tournament, Stepan has been dangerous shorthanded. On the next shift, he nearly scored before setting up D'Amigo for the nail in the coffin.

After coming close, an active stick by Stepan intercepted a pass at the point for a two-on-one. As the Ranger 2008 second rounder came down the right wing, his eyes went to Markstrom as if he were going to shoot. Instead, he made a no look pass to D'Amigo, who went upstairs for the backbreaking shorthanded goal that gave a pumped up USA a 4-2 lead with 4:28 left. The play drew praise from the NHL Network color analyst, who went out of his way to talk up our three American prospects (Kreider, Bourque). It was pretty cool. If only they could get here now instead of 2-3 years down the road.

"For us, we set a goal in Lake Placid this summer and in North Dakota where we had our tryout camp and our goal was to come out with a medal and the other was to win that gold medal," Stepan pointed out.

Desperate, Sweden pulled Markstrom with over two minutes left for an extra attacker. However, they couldn't make it interesting. Thanks in large part to some yeoman work from our players who wouldn't allow the Swedes a sniff, A.J. Jenks sealed it when he one-timed a Morin feed into the vacated net with 55 ticks to go, ensuring a USA/Canada rematch for all the marbles.

"Nobody really expects us to win because Canada has won five years in a row, so you have to tip your hats to them,"draft eligible forward Jason Zucker added. "We're going to go out there and give it our best and hopefully win a gold medal."

They'll get their shot at redemption.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Mike Lee, USA (27 saves incl.10/10 in 3rd) 
2nd Star-Anton Lander, SWE (2 goals, 4 SOG, +1)
1st Star-Jeff D'Amigo, USA (2 goals incl.GT and SHG, 3 SOG, +1)

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