The United States jumped out to a three-goal lead, and held on to defeat the Czech Republic, 4-3, in the first medal round game at the World Junior Championships on Thursday.
With the victory, Team USA will face Canada (7:10 p.m. ET) in the semifinals on Friday with the right to advance to the gold medal game. The game will be televised on tape delay on the YES Network (Ch. 622 on DirecTV) at midnight, and again at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The game is also webcast live on USAHockey.com, and available live on The Sports Network in Canada, and as part of DirecTV’s NHL Center Ice package.
With a win in one of its next two games, the U.S. will win its first medal at the World Junior Championships since earning the silver at the 1997 tournament in Switzerland.
Team USA scored quick-strike goals in each of the first two periods, to go on top 4-1. Michigan’s Dwight Helminen and North Dakota’s Zach Parise scored just 33 seconds apart midway through the first period, and Ohio State’s Ryan Kesler and defenseman Ryan Suter scored just 44 seconds apart in the second period.
In between, the Czechs scored early in the second period, then added a goal later in the period for a 4-2 game. The Czech Republic added a goal late in the third period, but Providence’s Bob Goepfert held on for his fourth straight win, recording 22 saves.
“Our goalkeeper was outstanding, just outstanding,” said U.S. head coach Lou Vairo, who also coached the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team. “We’re just happy we were able to hang on and win.”
The United States finished 3-1 in round-robin play in Group A, opening with a loss to Russia before reeling off wins against Switzerland, Slovakia and Belarus.
Maine’s Jim Howard made his only start in goal against Russia, and lost 5-1, as 17-year old superstar Alexander Ovechkin — considered the consensus No. 1 pick in the NHL draft were he not two days too young to be eligible — had a hat trick in the game. In the game, Team USA also lost star defenseman Tim Gleason, a first-round pick of Ottawa in 2001, to a broken foot.
Against Switzerland, Yale’s Chris Higgins had two shorthanded goals to lead Team USA to a 3-1 win. That was followed by an 8-2 win over Belarus, as Minnesota’s Barry Tallackson and Parise each scored twice. Group play concluded with a 3-1 decision over Slovakia.
Team USA advanced to the medal round as the No. 2 seed in its group, while the Czech Republic was the No. 3 seed in Group B.
In a change from recent years, the No. 1 seeds in each group, Russia and Canada, each received a bye in the first medal round game. That makes Canada fully rested for Friday’s match.
In the other crossover game, Finland defeated Slovakia, 6-0, and will face Russia in the semifinals.
NOTES: The U.S. guarantees itself at least a fourth-place finish in the tournament, matching its best placement since finishing fourth at the 2000 tournament. Team USA finished in fifth place in both the 2001 and 2002 tournaments, despite finishing with the best winning percentage of last year’s teams. …
The win now gives the U.S. three straight wins over the Czechs in World Junior Championship play. The U.S. swept a pair of games from the host Czechs at the 2002 tournament, including the game that earned fifth place. …
While the U.S. is 4-20-3 against Canada in World Junior Championship play, it has held its own against the Canadians in recent years. The U.S. is 2-2-1 against the Canada since the 1998 tournament, winning at the 1998 and 1999 tournaments. The last meeting between the two neighbors was in the 2001 tournament, with Canada taking a narrow 2-1 victory.