Breakdown: USA vs. Sweden for World Junior gold
A look at how Sweden and Team USA match up ahead of Saturday's gold-medal match at the 2013 World Junior Championship (8 a.m. EST, NHL Network in the US, TSN in Canada, live-streamed on NHL.com).
Edge: even The Swedes will be without their best forward -- 2012 golden goal sniper Mika Zibanejad -- but they still have plenty of skill and grit up front. Sebastien Collberg (Canadiens) shares the team lead with six points. He's been hard on the puck and extremely creative. His shootout-winner against the Russians in the semis was a jaw-dropping masterpiece. Rickard Rakell (Ducks) has been an eye-opener. He has a knack for finding dead space and getting his shot off quickly and has generated as many scoring chances as anyone in the tournament. Victor Rask (Hurricanes) lacks high-end speed, but he's been very effective setting up his teammates and working the corners. Emil Molin (Stars) is a sly shooter who could cause the Americans problems on the power play. Captain Filip Forsberg (Capitals) hasn't been as effective as expected, but is the sort of player who could put the Swedes on his shoulders in the big game.
No one questioned the work ethic or speed of the Americans, but scoring touch looked like it might be their undoing after they managed just two goals in round-robin losses to Canada and Russia. Credit then to coach Phil Housley as his decision to bump Jimmy Vesey (Predators) to the top line alongside Rangers first-rounder J.T. Miller and Johnny Gaudreau (Flames) cured all ills. Miller did yeoman's work shutting down Canada's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on Thursday (MUIR: USA shines in win), and his physical play and distribution skills give his linemates time and space. Gaudreau, the tournament's leading scorer, is red-hot with five goals in the past two games. Montreal first-rounder Alex Galchenyuk was quiet in the semis, but has game-breaking skill. He feels due for a real breakthrough moment.
Edge: USA That the Swedes have advanced this far playing without their four best defenders, including a trio of first-round picks, speaks volumes about where their program is right now. The group they brought lacks star power, but it's proven to be efficient and capable. Tom Nilsson, a fourth-round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2011, has really stepped up. He's done an outstanding job of reading game situations and adjusting his style to meet the needs of the moment. Mikael Vikstrand (Senators) has shown incredible puck patience and his passes have a way of stretching the opposing defense to allow his forwards to enter the attack zone with speed. That ability will be key to slowing down what should be a very aggressive American forecheck.
No doubt Sweden has a solid group, but it can't match up to an American corps that's been sensational at both ends of the ice. Ten of Team USA's 31 goals have come from blueliners, including three from captain Jake McCabe (Sabres) and four from Jacob Trouba. The Winnipeg Jets' first-rounder (2011) has emerged as the tournament's top defenseman, shutting down opposing top lines and keying the American offense with his skating and puck movement. Seth Jones has lived up to his status as the co-favorite to go first overall in the next NHL draft with a heady performance that's improved as the tournament has progressed. Look for Pat Sieloff (Flames) to make an early impression with his physical play.
There's not much to choose from between John Gibson and Niklas Lundstrom. Gibson, Anaheim's second pick in 2012, didn't have to be brilliant in Team USA's previous wins over the Czechs and Canada, but he's made every save he's needed to make. When the Canadians finally showed up during a third-period power play on Thursday, he made a pair of five-bell stops on Nugent-Hopkins and Dougie Hamilton to slam the door shut. The confidence the Americans play with up front is a direct result of Gibson's reliability on the back end. Lundstrom (Blues) split duties with Joel Lassinantti in the round robin, but was the go-to guy in the semis against the Russians. He could have slept through the first period of that 3-2 shootout win, but when the Russians came hard in the second half, he was nails. Like Gibson, Lundstrom takes up a lot of net, has incredible patience and is very cool under pressure. Gibson has a slight physical edge, but Lundstrom showed tremendous resilience under fire, especially in OT and the shootout of the semis. Tough to pick one over the other here.
The Swedes have been slightly more efficient on the power play, scoring 11 goals on 30 chances, while the US is 12 for 39. The Americans show a real edge on the penalty kill where they've allowed just two goals for a 92 percent kill rate. The Swedes have struggled when down a man, giving up a goal per game (18 of 23). They play a strong positional game, but showed against Russia that they're vulnerable to high-end speed. If they allow the Americans to dictate the pace, they could dig their own grave with too many penalties.
Edge: USA Sweden returns six players from a team that won gold at the 2012 World Juniors, but games played at the past two World U-18 championships might give a better reflection of the American edge. The Americans have won the last four U-18 titles, beating Sweden for gold in each of the previous three, including a 7-0 throttling last April by a team that featured Trouba, Jones, Sieloff, Riley Barber and Ryan Hartman. Ten members of the current team -- including Gibson, Trouba, Jones, Miller and Cole Bardreau -- dressed for Team USA in 2011 when they edged the Swedes 4-3 in overtime. This U-20 is a different stage, but those experiences against the Swedes at a lower level have the Americans well-rehearsed. It should give them the deciding edge on Saturday morning.