It took some time for this 2001 age group for Team USA to capture gold, but it finally happened. Years of heartbreak led to the moment Tuesday night in Edmonton or early Wednesday morning on the East Coast. But Team USA defeated Canada by a score of 2-0 to capture the gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Championship.
Mission Complete: Team USA Wins Gold
Ever since the IIHF announced that the 2021 World Junior Championship was going to happen, Team USA had one mission or goal entering the tournament and that was to win. From management to coaches to players, no one thought it was going to be easy. But everyone was buying in, especially the players. These players had gone through years of heartbreak. Especially guys like Trevor Zegras, Alex Turcotte, Cole Caufield, Cam York, Spencer Knight, and the list goes on. They have been together in the United States National Development Program for years. Several years of losing were enough motivation not to lose again.
The Heartbreak Begins
Go back to when this group came together for the 2018 U18 World Championships. It was the best group of players ever assembled. Cole Caufield recorded the most goals ever in the program history with 72. Jack Hughes a member of the New Jersey Devils, recorded the most assists (154) and points (228) in program history. This group was primed to do great things. Unfortunately, that did not happen right away. At those U18 World Championships, Team USA came up short against Finland. Losing in heartbreaking fashion on a late goal. That left a bitter taste in their mouth.
It was off to the 2019 World Junior Championship and Team USA was back in the final. Throughout the tournament, they faced some adversity but none bigger than in the gold medal game itself. Trailing against Finland, Team USA rallied to tie the game at 2-2, but New York Rangers prospect Kaapo Kakko won the gold medal for Finland on a late third-period goal. Team USA had to watch Finland celebrate with the gold medal they thought was theirs.
The following year at the 2020 World Junior Championship, Team USA faced Finland again. This time in the quarterfinals. Again Team USA came up short. Finland played the perfect game against Team USA and won the game 1-0 knocking the Americans out of the tournament. This loss left a bitter taste in the mouths of the players and management.
And So It Starts
Entering the 2021 World Junior Championship, Team USA put together a roster that was highly motivated. All the big names were back including some that were first-round draft picks. Head coach Nate Leeman set the tone early letting the players know that things were not going to come easy. Considering Team USA was in Group B with the likes of Russia and Sweden, he was right. This group was highly skilled and featured the best goaltending duo in the tournament with Spencer Knight and Dustin Wolf. Things got off to a rocky start against Russia in Game One. Team USA did not come out with the fire that everyone expected them to. They made uncharacteristic mistakes which gave Russia a 4-1 lead. Give credit to Team USA fighting back and making it a 4-3 game until Russia scored on an empty net to win 5-3. Team USA was down but not out.
After that loss, Team USA was the best team in the tournament. They rolled over Austria, Czech Republic, and Sweden to close out group play. After Dustin Wolf came in to settle things down, Spencer Knight reestablished the net was his. Team USA shutout their opponents for three straight games, scoring 22 unanswered goals. That streak got extended in the quarterfinals against Slovakia to 25 unanswered goals. However, Team USA did not have a strong third period to close the game. After letting Slovakia score late in the second period, the Slovaks controlled most of the play in the third period. But Team USA didn’t let the stage scare them and they scored twice to advance to the semifinals.
Fourth Time a Charm
Team USA was highly motivated against their next opponent in the semifinals. As previously mentioned Finland had been the source of their motivation. Team USA knew they were going to have to get by a tough Finland team by outworking them. All the hard work they put in came down for a chance to play for gold. It was going to come down to who wanted it more. Team USA had to grind this one out. Even though they had a 3-1 lead entering the third period, they let Finland control play. Finland ends up tying the game. Now the players are thinking here we go again. But the leadership on the team calmed everything down which led to the top line of Turcotte, Zegras and Arthur Kaliyev being out there for the game-winning goal late. This time it was Team USA getting a late third-period goal to flip the script on Finland.
Entering the game against Canada, Team USA were underdogs. But because of the adversity, this group had gone through not only in the tournament but in years past, they were ready for Canada. And it showed. Team USA outworked Canada for two periods. It was a surprise to see a team play Canada’s game and take right to them. But going through tough losses makes a team better. Again Team USA’s third period wasn’t the greatest, but Spencer Knight silenced his doubters with a 2-0 shutout of Canada. As the old saying goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
As Team USA celebrated you could see the sense of relief and joy on the players’ faces. All the hard work they put in finally paid off. It was a long time coming for the best age group in USA Hockey history. Even the guys who weren’t there let their voices be heard. Give credit to the leadership and coaching staff for not letting this group look too far ahead. Instead taking one game at a time and playing simple grinding hockey. This was the perfect way for this group to cap off their time together.
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