7 medal game storylines
by Lucas AYKROYD|04 MAY 2024
The U.S. thumped Canada 8-3 the last time they met in the 2022 tournament opener (seen here), but a tighter battle likely looms in the 2024 gold medal game.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Chris Tanouye
Bring on the battle of North America! The 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship will climax with just the third U.S.-Canada gold medal game in tournament history, with the U.S. triumphing 5-1 in 2005 and Canada 3-2 in 2013.

Meanwhile, the heart-and-hustle Slovaks – who came oh-so-close to capturing the 2023 bronze medal in Switzerland with a 4-3 sudden-death loss to Canada – will hope to take advantage of a disappointed Swedish team and bring home some hardware for the first time since 2003’s silver.

With all this excitement in store at Espoo’s Metro Areena on Sunday, let’s explore seven medal game storylines.

1) Can the U.S. repeat as champions?

The last time any nation went back-to-back at the U18 Worlds, it was the U.S. in 2015 with a 2-1 gold medal win over Finland in overtime. Auston Matthews led the charge as MVP (15 points), and his big-name teammates included Matthew Tkachuk (12 points) and Clayton Keller (9 points). In other words, it’s been quite a while.

Coach Nick Fohr’s 2024 squad has carved out its own identity with speed, skill, and sheer relentlessness. It could theoretically match or better the tournament-record goal difference of last year’s golden crew (51-10) headlined by Will Smith, Ryan Leonard, and Gabe Perreault. This year, the undefeated Americans sit at 44-9 through six games. They’re looking strong, but there are no guarantees against a Canadian team that is hungry to top the podium for the first time sincer 2021.

2) Just how many points will James Hagens total?

With a tournament-leading 22 points through six games, Hagens has already broken Nikita Kucherov’s single-tournament record (21), which stood for 13 years. Perhaps most stunning so far was the 17-year-old pivot’s six-point night – a hat trick and three assists – when the U.S. pummelled host Finland 9-4.

Even if, say, Canada’s Gavin McKenna, 16, returns in next-level form for the 2025 U18 Worlds, it’ll take a Herculean effort to set a new points record.

3) Can Canada dictate terms physically?

In international hockey, when Canada defeats the U.S. in a gold medal game, it almost always wins the war along the boards and in front of the net. Finding ways to slow down the ultra-skillful Americans, without taking bad penalties, may be the difference-maker on Sunday.

“You've got to use your body,” said Canadian captain Porter Martone. “We've got to play the Canadian way, and I think we've got the team to do it, to match their skill and come out and play a bit of gritty hockey and get the gold medal.”

Having produced 40 goals (second-highest overall), it’s not as if Canada’s offence is chopped liver. Tied for the Canadian lead in points (16), McKenna and Martone are meshing together beautifully.  And the Tij Iginla-Ryder Ritchie combo has elevated in the medal round. But playing no-touch run-and-gun with these slick Americans is a recipe for catastrophe.

4) Will the U.S. power play stay red hot?

Credit for the top-ranked U.S. power play (13-for-25, 52 percent) extends beyond Hagens’ magic. In the 7-2 semi-final win over Slovakia, Cole Eiserman, now tied with Cole Caufield for the all-time USNTDP goals lead (126), notched two one-timer goals with the man advantage. Eiserman boasts a whopping six PP goals in Espoo.

“Best shot in the world, I think, at least in this age group,” said Cole Hutson, another PP catalyst who leads all tournament blueliners in scoring (10 points) for the second consecutive year. “Find him, get him the puck, and he’ll rarely miss.”

Beyond Hagens and Eiserman, three other U.S. forwards have power play goals. This group is too lethal to take lightly. Canada may not have paid the price for taking five-minute majors in both its encounters with Sweden, but can’t count on the U.S. failing to convert in such situations in the final.

5) Who will win the U.S.-Canada goaltending showdown?

On paper, there’s not too much to choose between the U.S.’s Nicholas Kempf and Canada’s Carter George.

Both the USNTDP star and the first-stringer of the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack are projected as third-round picks in the 2024 NHL Draft. Both have recorded two shutouts in their first U18 Worlds. And their numbers overall are reasonably comparable, with Kempf boasting a 1.15 GAA and 94.9 save percentage and George a 2.00 GAA and 92.9 save percentage.

These young men have already succeeded in winning their teammates’ confidence, as Hagens noted about Kempf: “Being able to have that guy in your net, knowing that when [the other team] is on a breakaway or 2-on-1 that he’s going to pull out something and make that save, it’s huge.”

6) Will Sweden bounce back mentally?

The Swedes were caught napping in their semi-final, going down 4-0 in the first period. Even though coach Johan Rosen’s troops rallied, they still fell 5-4 to Canada. That’s not up to par for a country that’s medalled at each U18 Worlds since 2018, including gold medals in 2019 and 2022. It calls for a big response against Slovakia in the bronze medal game.

History suggests that the Smakronorna will likely get back to their consistent game. All-time in bronze medal games, they have a record of five wins (2000, 2005, 2007, 2018, 2021) and three losses (2008, 2014, 2017).

7) Will Slovakia’s special teams get going?

The Slovaks would be probably well-advised to tackle Sweden at 5-on-5 as much as possible. Both their power play (4-for-22, 18.8 percent) and penalty-killing (59 percent) rank a dismal eighth out of 10 teams.

Without a Jaroslav Halak between the pipes or a Dalibor Dvorsky to boost the power play – those players were tournament all-stars in Slovakia’s 2003 silver and 2023 bronze medal runs respectively – smart even-strength hockey becomes that much more imperative on Sunday.