Despite a disappointing loss at the hands of Russia for the third straight year, the United States managed to rebound, get their head on straight and grab bronze in the 2016 World Juniors with an 8-3 win over Sweden on Tuesday.
The U.S. wound up blowing out Sweden, despite heading to the locker room tied up at 2-2 after the first period.
From that point on, the U.S. took control of the game. They were ignited by a pair of goals from Notre Dame’s Anders Bjork, who climbed the depth chart through the tournament to play on the team’s second line with Sonny Milano and Christian Dvorak for the second half of the tourney. That line was the U.S.’s best against Russia and brought a lot of pressure early against Sweden on Tuesday.
After being knocked out of last year’s tournament by the Russians in the quarterfinals, it was a good showing for Team USA to come back and bring home hardware, posting some impressive stats. Full credit to Ron Wilson, who did some weird things during the tournament, for getting his team over the disappointment of Monday’s loss and ready to play in less than 24 hours.
After the medals were handed out, the U.S. finished the tournament with a +24 goal differential and 2016 draft eligible forward Auston Matthews was still in the lead for goals in the tournament. U.S. goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, despite giving up a late goal to Sweden’s Axel Holmstrom, came in second in save percentage for the tournament. That was aided in part by the player ahead of him, Linus Soderstrom, sitting out the game and giving the start to Felix Sanderstrom, who had eight goals get by him.
Those were good individual marks in terms of U.S. history at the tournament as well. Despite not scoring in their final two games, Matthews’s seven goals is tied for second most at World Juniors by an American, falling just one short of Jeremy Roenick’s mark from 1989.
Nedeljkovic’s .943 save percentage is the third best mark by an American goaltender, coming in behind Al Montoya and Anaheim’s John Gibson, who holds the record.
The bronze gives the U.S. medals in four of the last seven tournaments, a solid showing for a team that hadn’t earned any medals at all in the first nine years of the tournament. They had collected just two bronze medals in the first 20 years of the tournament, leading up to 1997’s silver medal finish.
The U.S. won their first gold medal in 2003. At that point they had one silver and two bronzes in 27 years. Over the next five seasons they’d win just a single bronze medal. That makes the current state of American hockey impressive. Of their four medals in the last seven tournaments, two of them are gold. The program has seen significant improvement and is competitive annually.
The loss to Russia was disappointing, but the win for the U.S. was a big deal and shows that they’re a continuing force in the international game. It was a young squad too, with a top line that started the tournament completely comprised of 2016 draft eligible players. They had eight players who are eligible to return next year (though it’s hard to imagine Matthews won’t be in the NHL).
American hockey is in a good place and the win on Tuesday ended a respectable tournament for the Americans, despite the disappointment of not being in the gold medal game. There’s good reason to believe that the U.S. is going to continue to improve on the international stage at all levels and you saw some of the future of the best on best team at work here.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.