Down to the Final Four in Finland
by Chris JUREWICZ|04 MAY 2024
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Chris Tanouye
It’s been 11 years since Canada and the United States met in the gold medal game of the IIHF U18 World Championship. The two teams were the dominant forces throughout preliminary-round play at the 2024 U18 Worlds in Finland, with Team USA finishing first in Group A with a 4-0 record and Canada matching that mark to run the table in Group B.

It feels like the rival nations are on a collision course to play for gold this year but both teams have obstacles in their way as we reach the semi-final stage of the tournament.

The United States, which won gold in 2023 in Switzerland, will face suddenly-hot Slovakia in one semi and Canada, which last won gold in 2021, has another matchup with Sweden in the other semi. Both games take place in Espoo on Friday.

United States – Slovakia (14:00, Espoo)

The Slovaks kicked off their 2024 U18 Worlds with a thud. Or maybe it was a whimper.

They couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend and they were overwhelmed by the high-flying Americans in a 9-0 loss. The preliminary round didn’t get much better for the Slovaks, losing their next two games by scores of 5-3 to Latvia and 4-0 to Finland.

At 0-3, things were looking grim for the Slovaks to make the quarter-final round but they scored early and often in an 11-1 rout of Norway and then beat arch-rival Czechia 3-2 in the quarters, setting up this rematch with Team USA.

So what has to go right for the Slovaks to come out on top this time?

Let’s start with the USA’s offence versus Slovakia’s defence. This is a matchup that, on paper/screen, favours the US.

Slovakia gave up 18 goals in their first three games of the tournament. That’s way too many. They have tightened things up in the past two games with three goals against. Keep that up and the Slovaks stand a chance.

The Americans led the preliminary round in goals for with 33, an average of 8.25 per game. The scoring dropped off in the quarters as the Americans beat Switzerland, 4-0, but the fact remains this Team USA can score in bunches. James Hagens continues to lead the tournament in scoring with 19 points and six of the top eight point-getters are American.

The Slovaks’ best chance, maybe its only chance, is if every player has the game of his life and if this group of teenagers plays more like a team.

“We need to work as a team, not individuals,” said Slovak forward Ondrej Maruna. “We need to show how strong of a team we are.”

As for the vaunted Americans, dazzling defender Cole Hutson thinks his group can’t look past anyone.

“We need to play the right way,” said Hutson. “Block out the noise, not take any shifts off, not take any team lightly, because like we’ve seen already, anything can happen in these games, every team is really good, every team works hard. You just have to earn every game you win.”

Slovakia versus the United States is a semi-final rematch of one year ago, a game the Americans won 7-1 en route to gold. Slovakia looks to win a medal after losing last year’s bronze medal game in heartbreaking fashion, 4-3 in overtime to Canada.

Canada – Sweden (18:00, Espoo)

Sweden has had a bit of a sleepy tournament so far in Finland. But a 2-1 quarter-final win over the host Finns on Wednesday might be just what the doctored ordered to rouse the perennially-strong Swedes, who have medaled in five-straight U18s, including gold in 2022.

Sweden started the 2024 tournament with a 6-3 loss to semi-final opponent Canada, handily beat Kazakhstan 7-1, lost 3-2 to Czechia in a shootout, and then snuck by Switzerland in overtime, before meeting Finland in the quarters.

We’re not quite sure what to expect out of this Swedish squad but there’s no doubt they’ll be motivated to beat Canada for the second-straight year in the semis. Last year, Sweden defeated Canada 7-2 to move onto the gold medal game. The Swedes couldn’t seal the deal and lost in overtime, 3-2 to Team USA.

“We're very excited,” said Lucas Pettersson of facing Canada. “We have to be cocky. They're cocky. So we need to match that.”
Said Jack Berglund: “We want to beat them because we lost to them in the group. We didn't really have a great start against them last time. We have to go in with the same energy we did (against Finland) and play for each other and be ready from the start. And I think we have a great chance.”
Sweden’s challenge is stopping Canada’s big guns Gavin McKenna and Porter Martone, who sit 2-3 in tournament scoring with 15 and 14 points respectively. During Canada’s 6-3 win over Sweden in the preliminary round, McKenna and Martone each had two points.
Focusing only on Canada’s offence, though, would undermine its attention to detail in the defensive end.

Canada was tied with the United States for fewest goals against in the preliminary round at seven and Canada is also coming off a shutout win in the semis over Latvia. Canadian goaltender Carter George has earned two shutouts so far and sports a 0.936 save percentage and 1.50 goals against average.
“If we just play the Canadian way, play the way we can, I think we won’t have a problem with them,” said Canadian forward Ryder Ritchie. “Just get pucks deep, play hard on the forecheck and I think we’ll be fine. We have a lot of confidence going into this game.”

The two semi-final winners will play for gold on Sunday, while the semi-final losers will face off for bronze.