STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- After 17 days of evolving into a tight and cohesive group, culminating with a seventy-minute battle and bronze medal at stake, it was a pair of 19-year-olds – Alex Galchenyuk and John Gibson – who ultimately made the difference in a dramatic shootout victory over Finland.
The United States earned a bronze medal at the IIHF World Championship for the first time since 2004.
The duo of 19-year-olds remained calm and collected beyond their years in a high-pressure situation with the U.S. medal hopes on the line. Galchenyuk displayed his talents beating Finnish goalie Antti Raanta on consecutive shootout attempts to send Team USA to victory. Gibson stopped 38 Finland shots, including three in overtime, and finally, allowed just one goal on four tries in the shootout.
“The first one, you know if you miss, you go home empty-handed,” said Galchenyuk, who came to center ice as the third shooter and the U.S. down a goal. “It’s a tough situation to be in, and I was really nervous, but I’m happy I scored.”
U.S. Head Coach Joe Sacco opted to give Galchenyuk a chance to shoot again, just minutes later, and this time, after Lauri Korpikoski failed to score on Gibson to start the fourth round, it became for the win.
Galchenyuk went two-for-two and the U.S. celebration began.
“You win a game for the team and your country at this young age and its unbelievable,” Galchenyuk said shortly after the victory. “Its probably the happiest I’ve been in my whole life so far. I’m definitely happy and proud.”
“Anytime you can win a medal for your country its an honor,” said Gibson, who along with Galchenyuk, won gold medals with the U.S. National Junior Team team in January.
“Gibson was outstanding and Galchenyuk scored a couple of big goals there,” said Sacco. “It’s a really good feeling right now and I’m just happy for the players.”
Unlike in yesterday’s semifinal loss to Switzerland, the United States came out fast and furious against Finland. Craig Smith gave the U.S. a quick 1-0 lead in the opening minute making a nifty move in front and sliding a backhander past Finnish goalie Antti Raanta. Paul Stastny and David Moss assisted on the tally.
Exactly three minutes later, this time it was Stastny, sending a one-timer past Raanta top shelf off a nice backhand dish from Smith.
“We had some good jump there early,” said Smith. “We were able to make plays and I think we stunned their defense. They gave up a couple of turnovers and we were able to convert. It was definitely the start you want in a big game like this.”
After a scoreless second period, Finland came hard in the third and tied the game with two scores by Lauri Korpikoski in a span of 3:22, the second coming with eight minutes remaining.
The game ended deadlocked at two and after both teams managed three unsuccessful shots-on-goal in overtime, it was onto the shootout where the U.S. rose to the occasion.
Stastny, who led the team with 15 points (7-8-15) in 10 games played, spoke about the youthful squad and their road to the bronze medal.
“We had a young team here and everyone was just kind of enjoying the moment,” said Stastny, the team captain. “It was kind of unique that there was no pressure or expectations on us. Once we held our own against Russia the first time and then beat Finland, we realized we could do something good. We kind of went from there with a stay-loose attitude, playing a game we love, and that’s what we did.”
Smith, who notched a hat trick against Finland in the preliminary round, finished just behind his linemate Stastny in scoring, concluding the tournament with 14 points (4-10-14).
“It’s awesome…the room is filled with young kids who are excited and want to be here,” Smith said about the U.S. squad which averaged just 24.8 years of age. “It’s great that we all came together and were able to do something special.”
Having achieved a bronze medal here in Stockholm, Sacco has now won medals as both a player and head coach for Team USA. Also a 1992 Olympian, Sacco was part of the United States’ 1996 bronze medal winning team in Vienna, Austria, assisting on the game-winning goal in overtime against Russia.
“I’m just really proud of what this group accomplished,” Sacco said. “I think if you would have asked a lot of people at the start of this tournament, they certainly wouldn’t have given us a chance to medal. The group we have here is really hard-working, dedicated and they bought in from day one. It was a lot of fun to coach this team.”
“He just let us play in this two-week situation; if things went bad, he just kind of focused on the next period or next game and didn’t get too upset,” said Stastny about Sacco, who made his debut as head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team. “I think the most important thing was that he kept all the lines together and we built chemistry and just rolled from there.
With the victory and bronze medal on Sunday, the U.S. has medaled in every major international hockey tournament this year (Gold-WJC, WWC, Silver-U18M, U18W, Sled).
“We go in with high expectations all the time and I think performance-wise, we’ve shown it at all other events except this one,” said Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for the USA Hockey. “I hope this is a building block for continued medal success at this championship. It is a measuring point and something that we’ve been striving for and haven’t quite attained, so I hope this group helps us break that barrier.”
This group of 25 players matured and rapidly grew together with numerous individuals making contributions in seven wins in ten games played in two countries, but ultimately, it was captain Paul Stastny who was the team’s catalyst.
“I think it was huge for us to get to the final four and come away with a medal, something the U.S. hasn’t done in nearly a decade,” Stastny said. “It shows where USA Hockey is going. It’s a big step forward and I hope we can build on this.”