U.S goes for gold, Hagens sets record
by Lucas AYKROYD|04 MAY 2024
James Hagens (left) and Cole Eiserman (second from left) celebrate with U.S. teammates after Eiserman's first-period goal in a 7-2 semi-final win over Slovakia at the 2024 U18 Worlds.
On Saturday, fans in Espoo saw a magician making history. James Hagens lifted the U.S. into the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship gold medal game, setting a new tournament points record in a 7-2 semi-final rout of Slovakia.

The dazzling 17-year-old centre from Long Island, New York left no doubt for the defending champs with three assists to eclipse Nikita Kucherov’s 2011 record (11+10=21). Hagens now has 22 points (9+13=22).

"He's ridiculous," said U.S. defenceman Cole Hutson. "So happy for him. He's a helluva player. I don't even know the things that he's doing out there! But he's unreal."

The Americans will go for gold for the second straight year versus the Canada-Sweden semi-final winner. Last year, the U.S. rallied to edge Sweden 3-2 in the final in Basel, Switzerland on Ryan Leonard’s overtime goal.

"We're going to come out and give it our all," said Hagens. "That's the game that we came here to win."

This was a complete team win. Cole Eiserman scored twice to tie Cole Caufield's all-time USNTDP record (126 goals) and trails only Hagens here with eight goals. Max Plante added a goal and two assists. Hutson, who led all blueliners last year with 12 points, also notched a goal and two assists and now has 11 points.

The Slovaks remain highly motivated to get the bronze medal after barely falling short in a 4-3 overtime loss to Canada last year.

"I think it was a tough loss for us [today]," said defenceman Luka Radivojevic. "We wanted to play for gold, but we're going to play for the bronze medal tomorrow, and we're going to do everything for it."

Hagens is truly in elite company. For context, Kucherov, the 2019 Hart Trophy winner and a two-time Stanley Cup champion with Tampa Bay, earned his second NHL scoring title this year with 144 points.

Hagens also surpassed USNTDP legends Jack Hughes (2019) and Will Smith (2023) for the single-tournament U.S. points record. Both had 9+11=20 in seven games.

"Seeing your name up there with those type of guys, you know, those are guys that inspire you to play," said Hagens. "You sit on your couch and watch those guys on TV, and to be up there is special. But the biggest part about coming here is to come home with a gold medal."

After a hard-fought first period, the U.S. edge in speed, skill, and defensive awareness overwhelmed the gritty underdogs. Final shots favoured the U.S. 40-22, and Slovak starting goalie Alan Lendak was pulled halfway through. Special teams were big as the Americans got three power play goals to Slovakia's zero.

This was a foreseeable outcome. In this year’s preliminary round, the U.S. walloped Slovakia 9-0. And in the 2023 semi-finals, the Americans hammered Slovakia 7-1.

At 3:08, the U.S. opened the scoring. Hagens won an offensive-zone draw back to defender Logan Hensler, and Teddy Stiga backhanded in the rebound for his sixth goal of these U18 Worlds.

The top-ranked U.S. power play, blanked in the 4-0 quarter-final win over Switzerland, made it 2-0 at 12:05. Hagens found Plante in the slot and he dished the puck to Eiserman in the right faceoff circle for a deadly one-timer. Eiserman tied Will Smith for the 2023 tournament goals lead (nine).

Adam Nemec gave Slovakia some life, cutting the deficit to 2-1 40 seconds later. After Tobias Pitka stole the puck at the Slovak blue line and raced down right wing to fire a shot, Nemec busted to the net to put the rebound past U.S. goalie Nicholas Kempf.

At 2:53 of the second period, the U.S. grabbed a 3-1 lead on a Plante one-timer that squeezed through Lendak's five-hole.

"I think we started off a bit slow, but once we got our feet under us, we started playing the right way," Hutson said.

Eiserman was initially sent off for a huge open-ice hit that left Slovak forward Andreas Straka crumpled on the ice. However, video review determined that the bodycheck was clean, and the U.S. went to the power play instead as Tobias Tomik had roughed up Eiserman in the aftermath.

Hagens promptly got his record-setting assist with a drop pass to Hutson for a slick wrist-shot marker from the left side at 9:34. Slovak coach Martin Dendis replaced Lendak in net with Martin Haronik, but couldn't shift the momentum.

Pitka complimented Hagens and Eiserman: "They're special hockey players."

At 14:26, defender Will Skahan put the game out of reach at 5-1. Coming in as the trailer on the play, the biggest U.S. skater at 193 cm and 96 kg showed big-time poise as he accepted L.J. Mooney's feed and fired it home.

Just 33 seconds into the final stanza, Eiserman whooped it up after another power play one-timer. With the sides at 4-on-4, Plante finished off a slick passing play on the rush to make it 7-1 at 11:58.

Slovakia's Tomas Chrenko rounded out the scoring with 42 seconds left.

Looking ahead to the final, Hutson said: "It's going to be sick. Either team we play, we're going to be ready to go. We just need to get our rest and we'll be ready for either one."

This was Slovakia’s 12th consecutive loss to the U.S. in U18 Worlds play. The Central European nation won 6-5 at the inaugural 1999 tournament en route to bronze and 4-1 in 2000, but never since. Slovakia also hasn’t medaled again since winning silver in 2003. Still, hope lives on in 2024.

"If we work like a team, one group of guys, we can beat anybody," said Pitka.

USA vs SVK - 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship