Despite a 60 save effort from Veini Vehvilainen, the Americans put on consistent pressure and would eventually defeat Finland 2-1 in overtime to take the Under-18 gold medal in Zug, Switzerland.
The Americans came into the game as the favourites, but after one shot, they were already down in the most important game of the tournament. Julius Nattinen gave Finland the 1-0 lead just 17 seconds into the battle when potential 2015 first rounder Sebastian Aho slid the puck to Nattinen, who scored on a one-timer to take the 1-0 lead very early on.
The goal may have been Nattinen’s, but it was Aho who really masterminded the play. On Saturday, Aho scored the game winning goal for Karpat of the Finnish league, giving his team the championship in his first pro season. Hours later, he arrived in Zug, Switzerland for the gold medal game, and it literally took him seconds to make a difference on the scoreboard.
The combination of Auston Matthews and Matt Tkachuk was incredibly strong in the first period, but if you’ve followed along during the tournament, that won’t come as a surprise. No question, they’ll both be among the first few to have their names called at the NHL Draft in 2016. The only issue: Veini Vehvilainen. One of the upcoming prospects in a never-ending Finnish goaltending factory, Vehvilainen was easily one of the top goaltenders all tournament and his skill was on display today. His best save of the game came in the final minute of the first, when Matthews’ one timer was somehow tipped away by the glove of Vehilainen, keeping his team in the lead after a period of play.
The second period was completely dominated by Vehviläinen in net once again. The Americans, filled with many star players split between the 2015 and 2016 NHL Drafts, took 34 shots in the opening 40 minutes, all stopped by the young star. Probably the best save of the game came on a breakaway deke by Caleb Jones, who, like most of the people in attendance, thought it was in. But, in unbelievable fashion, Vehilainen slid across and made a perfect glove save, keeping the lead that his team achieved on the very first play of the game.
It took them 38 shots, but the Americans finally found a way to spoil Vehilainen’s shutout. USA’s top line of Matthews, Tkachuk and Jack Roslovic have been easily the top line all tournament long, and their chemistry has been unmatched. That was proven when, pretty much out of nowhere, Tkachuk, from the corner, sent the puck out to Roslovic, who fired the puck between Vehilainen’s legs for the 1-1 goal. Roslovic, expected to go in the top 40 in this year’s draft, was able to record his 11th point on the play, helping his draft stock along the way.
The game couldn’t figure out a winner in regulation, so what better way to finish the great tournament than to end it in overtime? It took 13 minutes, but USA’s 62nd shot and potential first rounder Colin White’s only shot of the game proved to be the game winner, picking up a beautiful pass from Jeremy Bracco in traffic to secure the 2-1 victory to win gold.
With the victory, the Americans have now won six of the past seven U18 World Championships. Despite the incredible performance by the Americans, who only suffered one loss in a 3-1 disappointment against Russia to start the event, Auston Matthews was the only one to get named to the tournament all-star team after leading the Under-18’s with 14 points in seven games.
The Americans will have a chance to finish the U18 schedule with another victory this August when the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament begins. Last year, it was Canada, boasting a team of many top superstar prospects, won the title after defeating the Czech Republic in the finals. The Americans had already won medals at the U17 and World Junior A Challenge tournaments this season, so the U18 championship is just proof that they know what they’re doing over there.
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