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Saturday, April 23, 2011

World Under-18 Semifinals: USA, Sweden, advance to gold medal game

Sweden defeated Russia by a 3-1 score in a game that got ugly late. It was unfortunate to see some of the tomfoolery a couple of Russian players engaged in at the end, but up to that point, the two sides played hard. Ultimately, that Swedish defense prevailed.

Then, the Americans and Canadians played a game for the ages, with Canada surging back from a three-goal deficit in the third period to force overtime.

Tyler Biggs, who had been quiet all tournament offensively, and could have been one of the goats because of a bad penalty that led to a Canada power play goal to get them back in it, then beat Malcolm Subban with a high bullet blocker side in sudden death to grab a 5-4 victory and propel the Americans to a gold medal rematch with Sweden for the second year in a row.

After Brett Ritchie and J.T. Miller exchanged goals in the first period for a 1-1 score, Team USA dialed up the heat in the second frame, taking over momentum in the contest.

USA got another fabulous slot goal from Reid Boucher late in the second period to take a 2-1 lead after falling behind 1-0 in the opening frame. But the Americans tallied two short-handed goals in the same penalty kill in the third period to take a commanding 4-1 advantage.

Although Ritchie (2 goals) scored on a power play soon after Boucher's second goal of the game to cut the lead to two on what was a bad roughing penalty for Biggs, USA leaned on John Gibson did his best keep the Canadians at bay.

Unfortunately for the Americans, with Subban pulled with about three minutes remaining and the Canadians putting sustained offensive pressure on, Cole Bardreau made a costly mistake, scaling the puck over the glass to give Canada a 6-on-4 advantage. Ryan Murray, who looked every bit like a contender for first overall pick in 2012 today with a monster game at both ends, scored on a shot from near the blue line to make it 4-3.

Then, with Subban out again for the extra attacker, Murray got the puck to the net and Mark Scheifele ended up jamming it home for an improbable and outstanding comeback.

Reid Boucher, F- Player of the game for USA had a near carbon-copy of his winner against Russia late in the 2nd period; after taking a pass from Miller, he just ripped a high shot glove side that Subban had no chance on. Watching him play with Grimaldi is illuminating; Rocco is so amazingly fast and explosive, while Boucher is not. However, it doesn't matter because Boucher thinks the game so well and seems to make recognitions well ahead of most opponents. In short, he finds ways to isolate himself in prime scoring areas in the offensive zone, and then when the puck is anywhere near him, he makes his chances count.

J.T. Miller, F- Monster game from Miller, who showed every scout in attendance today why he's been talked about as a first-round pick for much of the year. Got USA on the board with a great rush and five-hole snipe. He then assisted on both goals by Boucher, one with a perfect feed from behind the net after Grimaldi knocked down Scheifele to allow Miller to gain possession, and then in the third while on the PK, when Miller drew an offensive zone draw right to his linemate, who buried it. Miller leads Team USA in scoring with four goals and 11 points in just five, that's right- five games. With his size (6-1), skating/speed, shot, puck skills and hockey IQ, Miller is putting on a show at absolutely the perfect time. Hello, top-30.

Tyler Biggs, F- We haven't had a lot to say about Biggs in the tourney because, well, frankly- he hasn't scored much and has taken entirely too many bad penalties. Some of it, you chalk up to him playing like the manchild he is and some of the international on-ice officials' tendency to make ridiculously bad calls when he blows a 150-pound kid up with a clean hit. That said, Biggs came through with an overtime dagger and at the end of the day, he's shown flashes of being a potential top-six power forward who can do a little bit of everything. Hands are still stiff, and scouts are going to continue to question the hockey sense, but after he hurt his team with an undisciplined penalty, he bounced back with the biggest goal of his young career. There's a lot to be said for that.

Rocco Grimaldi, F-Every time we watch him, we marvel at how noticeable and dynamic a little player he is. He didn't get on the scoresheet a bunch today, but he made a lot of plays defensively and on the PK to balance it out. He's still got issues with the size and strength, but he plays with so much intensity, and the fact that he made noticeable plays to knock Scheifele off the puck (leading directly to a Boucher goal) and then did it later to Travis Ewanyk, another guy much bigger than he, you have to give the youngster credit. Even if the points aren't coming in bunches (2 goals, 5 assists) he's doing a bunch of other things to help his team winner.

Zac Larraza, F- Scored a nice shorthanded goal on a jailbreak after he blocked a Reece Scarlett shot at the point and the Canadian defenseman stumbled as he tried to change direction when Larraza corralled it and took off up the ice. He's been a solid, underrated presence for this U.S. team. Not sold on his upside, but he looks like he could be an effective role player in the NHL one day.

Mike Paliotta, D- Kept it safe, simple and made a few memorable defensive plays. Also executed several nice stretch passes that didn't amount to goals, but showed he can make the breakout. Smooth, fluid skater who can transition effortlessly. Not a huge physical presence, but uses his size effectively to keep opponents away from the net and pin them against the boards. The lack of production/offensive dimension to his game is what will prevent him from being a first- or even second-round pick, but this future Vermont Catamount has enough in terms of his physical package and skating ability to be a defender at the highest level. He may just be another safe, unspectacular guy, however. Nothing wrong with that, but we saw him as bringing more to the table than that coming into the season.

Seth Jones, D- (2013 eligible) This sixteen-year-old has stud written all over him. He's already 6-3, and his dad, Popeye Jones, was about 6-8 when he played in the NBA, so we could see another three or more inches added to the youngster's height. He's an excellent skater with a wide base, good acceleration and balance. He handles the puck confidently and is effective at rushing it or moving it on the breakout. Likes to jump up into the play and has a pretty good shot already; it will develop more power and velocity as he gets older. Unfortunately, as a late '94, he won't even be draft eligible until 2013. That's going to give scouts plenty of time to pick apart his game, but for now, this young man who developed his passion for hockey in Toronto and Dallas (he calls Plano, TX home) has all the makings of a high-end prospect and definitely a player to watch in the next 26 months. One of our NHL scouting sources at the tourney texted to us today that Jones was one of the USA's best players, singling him out for praise.

John Gibson, G- If you're thinking that it was Gibson's fault that the Canadians forced overtime, you would be wrong. We asked a Western Conference NHL scout who is in Germany if Gibson was shaky and his response was an emphatic 'no'. When we opined that he was doing a good Jack Campbell impression in response, here is what the scout texted back to us: "Yes, but much more controlled (in his movements). Although not as invincible as Campbell a year ago." Then he added, "Gibson kept it together while his team fell apart."

Mark Scheifele, F- Solidifying his 1st-round stock with his performance in Germany, Scheifele did it again today, banging home a shot off the post in a wild scramble late in regulation to force OT. That gives him six goals in as many games in the tourney, and with his size and tools- a long, loping stride, quick hands and offensive instincts, this guy just has the look of an NHL player in time. He played for a poor team in Barrie this season, but still managed to make a name for himself.

Brett Ritchie, F- Power forward had a lot of interest coming into the season, but started sluggishly and was just coming on strong in January when he was felled by a bout with mono. Now only beginning to have his full strength and zip, it has showed in Germany, especially today, when he tallied a pair of power play markers. He's an OK skater, but is real strong on the puck and does the heavy lifting along the walls and in front of the net. Has a quick stick and keeps his big body planted in front of the net. Still raw and developing his overall game, this Sarnia Sting winger should secure second-round billing at least after the way he's played over the past 10 days.

Alan Quine, C- The Peterborough pivot may not be much of a defensive player, but he has legitimate skill as a playmaker. Small and not very strong, he nonetheless manages to pinball his way through the offensive zone with some dazzling agility and quickness at times. Puck is on his stick like a magnet as he slices defenses and then gets it out in front where his linemates can cash in. Superior vision, offensive feel and the soft touch to exploit seams in the o-zone. Had three helpers today...especially effective with the man advantage when he has more time and space to work with. Not impressive at all in his own end; does not look comfortable and will delay in picking up his man. There is some real unharnessed offensive potential with Quine, but he's going to need a lot of time and TLC by whichever NHL team drafts him. He looked like a first-rounder coming into the season, but lack of production and inconsistency dropped him. How low he goes remains to be seen, but if hockey was only played in the offensive end, then Quine would get a first-round grade.

Travis Ewanyk, C- Big, raw horse in the middle for Canada. A pure checker in this tourney with only one assist to show for his efforts, but excellent on faceoffs and earning a regular shift with his energy, hustle and smarts. Not all that exciting a player- good hitter in the open ice and mucks along the walls like you need him to, but seems to possess the toolbox to be an NHL player in time. He'll have to pay his dues, but there is a lot to like about this guy.

Ryan Murphy, D- Along with 'D' partner Murray, the Kitchener standout is leading Canada in scoring with three goals and nine points in six games. Although he was caught up ice and ended up in no-man's land when Biggs scored in OT, Murphy continued to show why he is one of the 2011 draft's most talked-about prospects. Tremendous skater who can rush the puck at will or move it to a breaking teammate just as effectively. Sees, feels and reacts to the game so instinctively; most can only dream of having his skill and awareness. Will get in trouble with his aggressiveness and attacking mindset, but such a talented offensive player that coaches can deal with that.

Ryan Murray, D- (2012 eligible) Terrific game from the captain, who just missed the 2011 draft by a couple of days, but is expected to be a top-three selection a year from now. Skilled, two-way defender plays a polished game and brings all the intangibles you want like hockey sense, determination and leadership. On one play, took the pass at his own blue line and then proceeded to skate through the entire U.S. squad, showing off impressive acceleration, superior edge control and stickhandling ability. Smart positionally and has the size and strength to be an excellent defensive player to go with his impressive offensive upside. Tied with Murphy for the team lead in scoring with nine points.

Canada plays Russia in the bronze medal game, while USA plays Sweden at 12:30 EST tomorrow, Easter Sunday.

Be on the lookout for Swedish forward William Karlsson, a skilled and heady centerman who has really come on playing for Vasteras Jr. team this season. He's having a strong tournament.

If the USA can win, it will be the first time ever that the U.S. has won three consecutive Under-18 championships.

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