The medals are about to be decided, with Sweden and the USA going for gold on Saturday evening after Canada and Russia play off for bronze.
It’s time for the medal games in Dmitrov, where an exciting and unpredictable Women’s U18 World Championship is coming to a close. Sweden goes up against the USA in the final, and the Scandinavians are looking to become the first European nation ever to win gold in a major women’s championship. The Americans, though, are on a run of three consecutive U18 titles and will be looking for a fourth.
Before that, host nation Russia plays Canada for bronze in the afternoon game. It’s the first time Canada has missed the final of this competition, while Russia looks to repeat its third-place finish from 2017. Both teams must respond quickly after the disappointment of a semi-final defeat. Russia will hope to give its enthusiastic supporters something to cheer, while Canada will be out for revenge after losing to Russia for the first time in the opening game of the tournament.
First-time champ or fourth straight gold?
For Sweden, success in this tournament has been built on some rock-solid defence. Although the team has scored just five goals in four games so far, it allowed Russia just one goal in 120 minutes and limited the USA to a solitary strike in regulation. It’s fair to say that goalie Anna Amholt, who missed the 0-4 loss against Canada, has fulfilled her ambition of giving her team a chance to win.
But it’s also a tribute to the contribution of team captain Maja Nylen Persson, the only returning blue liner at this tournament. The Leksands IF defender is also part of the senior women’s team, and yesterday learned that she will join Sweden’s Olympic party in Korea next month, and head coach Ylva Martinsen hailed the impact Nylen Persson made on the juniors.
“When we know that Maja would be available, that gave everyone so much more faith in what we could do here,” Martinsen said. “It’s an inexperienced defence, but they’ve been great, and they’ve tried to do everything we talked about in our game plans.”
As for the USA, one week on from Sweden’s OT loss on the first day of the tournament, Martinsen thinks the team has got even better.
“I think the USA has been the best team in this tournament,” she said. “I watched some of their semi-final and they are playing at a higher speed now than when we played in our first game.
“We will have to be at our absolute highest, highest level if we are going to win, but this is sport so anything is possible.”
For Team USA, it’s a chance of a fourth consecutive gold medal – but there’s no danger of anybody taking the game lightly.
Casey O’Brien, whose third period goal against Canada kick-started the team’s recovery from 1-3 down, admitted emotions were running high when Lindsay Reed’s save clinched a shoot-out win in the semi-final.
“I’ve never felt anything like that,” she said. “I had a tear coming down my cheek. I wouldn’t want to be part of this with any other team.”
And team spirit is a big part of the U.S. ethos in this tournament. Reed spoke of her pride in the collective achievement of making yet another final. “I’m unbelievably proud of this group, especially how we came from being down two. People say it’s the worst lead in hockey, but it’s also so hard to come back from and we did it.”
For head coach Joel Johnson, though, it’s important to keep emotions under control for one more day and see the job through.
“After the game I said we could celebrate a huge semi-final win, but the next one is the biggest game of the year for our group,” he said. “That’s the opportunity to throw your gloves in the air and celebrate as a team. This is what we talked about, starting way back in June or May of last year. It’s an opportunity that you don’t get very often, so we can’t take it for granted.”
The battle for bronze
Going into a bronze-medal game is a new experience for Canada, and not a welcome one. While the American team was planning to spend Friday evening watching the Russia vs Sweden semi-final, the Canadian girls were keen for a short time-out.
“It’s hard right now, but we really want to make sure we leave here with a medal,” said defender Alexie Guay. “We’re taking the night off on Friday, but we’ll come back Saturday morning, get back on it and prepare for one more game.”
Russia is no stranger to playing for bronze in women’s tournaments, but this year was a bit different. The host nation believed it had a real chance of making its first ever women’s final and the disappointment on the players’ faces was painfully apparent after the defeat against Sweden.
Captain Alina Orlova tried to remain philosophical. “In sport, there can be no victories without defeats,” she said. Head coach Yevgeni Bobariko urged his team to refocus quickly and beat Canada for the second time this week. “We will need to play our best game of the competition if we want to win the bronze,” he said.