World Juniors 2024

EP Rinkside's 3 Stars from the medal round of the 2024 World Juniors

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – The Americans have revenge on their mind, and they got it.

Almost a year and a half after a roster comprised of players from this same age group lost to Sweden in the gold medal game in Landshut, Germany, at the U18s, Team USA got the better of them.

“I think we just matured a little bit (after that loss). I feel like we’ve gotten better over the last two years, and I feel like you can tell that,” Team USA captain Rutger McGroarty said of what's changed. “We were doing it for the guy next to us. I feel like we love each other, and we knew that was going to be our last chance."

They played like it, too. Because while this game certainly wasn't without its share of tension, with the two clubs staying within a goal or two of each for the first 40 minutes, the Americans always felt in control.

And USA goaltender Trey Augustine wasn't letting this one get away from him, either. He was so good in this game that it might've won him goalie of the tournament honours, were the media allowed to vote on this any later than the first intermission.

“We got some big blocks, some big saves early,” USA head coach David Carle said of what was the difference in this game. “I thought the first goal was big, and our third period was our best period of the tournament.”

Isaac Howard led the charge early, scoring the 2-1 and 3-1 goals in the second period. Then, his teammates carried the torch in the third.

“It’s such a blast playing with Isaac,” his linemate Frank Nazar said. “He’s such a good player, just a sneaky goalscorer. It’s crazy. He’s always in those good spots and getting to those spots to score. He’s so fun to play with, and I just had a blast playing with him in my USA time.”

First-time draft-eligible defenceman Zeev Buium tickled twine from high in the offensive zone 1:19 into the frame, and then the Americans went into cruise control. Ryan Leonard buried the dagger, beating Noah Östlund to a loose puck, sending a laser past Hugo Hävelid to make it 5-2, and kissing the Scandinavium crowd goodnight.

The only real fight from that point was of the literal variety. This one got really ugly with about 30 seconds left. Perhaps that was bound to happen with the history these two teams share though.

“Oh, it’s disappointing, but it’s an emotional game," Carle said of the extracurriculars. “We’re here to sell tickets and to create entertainment, and I guess that’s what it was. It’s all good.”

At the end of the day though, that's an ugly footnote in an otherwise excellent hockey game. The type that Carle signed up to coach for.

“Lots of joy. That’s why you coach, to see the smiles on their faces,” Carle said of his team's win. “You know, you have two sets of birth years in there. You have the U18s that didn’t – it doesn’t really matter anymore; they’re all one team that walks together forever as champions.”

1. Isaac Howard, LW, USA (Tampa Bay Lightning)

The weight of playing in the World Juniors can sometimes feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Or, as the goals dried up for Howard in the playoffs, an oversized proverbial monkey. Because after scoring goals in each of the first four contests, the Lightning first-rounder failed to tally through the medal rounds.

That is, of course, until the USA played for gold on Friday.

With the game tied 1-1 halfway through the second period, defenceman Drew Fortescue sprang Howard for a breakaway with a bank pass behind a Swedish defenceman. And if you give Howard that kind of time and space with a full head of steam, he's making you pay.

“First one, d-man was ramming up the boards, and I was able to take the pass on my backhand and get a step on that guy,” Howard said. “Do a little pump fake and slide it five-hole.”

Less than five minutes later, Howard made them pay again, taking the puck from below the goal line and turning it into a goal in short order. That was the back-breaking goal that made it 3-1 in the second, and it stood as the game-winner.

“The second one, (Gavin) Brindley hit me from behind the net, a little give-and-go, and I kind of saw him cheating a litle bit, so I threw it far side by his pad.”

Howard walks away from Gothenburg with a gold medal around his neck and a share of the goal-scoring lead with seven tallies in seven games. It was a statement event for the 2022 first-round pick, who has battled some inconsistencies since being selected 31st overall by the Lightning.

“It’s the ups and downs about hockey, you know what I mean? You gotta stay true to yourself, stay true to your abilities, and I was able to have a good bounceback season. It all starts in the summer and with training and what not, being dedicated to the game, and good things happen.”

2. Jiří Kulich, C, Czechia (Buffalo Sabres)

All the Czechs needed was a spark. Something to ignite the fire that would light their way to a historic comeback and the bronze medal. Eventually, they got it.

Trailing the Finns by three with less than half a hockey game in front of them after Lenni Hämeenaho dangled his way to the 5-2 goal, it looked like this game was over. Perhaps the most telling indication was that the volunteers asked who we in the media wanted to talk to after the game; the Finnish side of the paper was full-to-overflowing, and there wasn't a spot of ink spilled for Czechia.

Ondřej Becher flipped the script. He snuck behind the Finnish defence on the penalty killed, corralled a difficult stretch pass in his feet, and snapped it past Niklas Kokko on the breakaway with less than a minute left in the second period. Suddenly, the Czechs had life.

“It was a huge goal for us,” Czech defenceman Tomas Hamara said after the game. “Yeah, a really huge goal for us. It’s a really big difference if you’re down two goals or three goals.”

This is when Jiří Kulich really makes his mark on this story. Aleksanteri Kaskimäki takes a tripping penalty, sending Czechia to the power play, and the Buffalo Sabres first-rounder makes no mistake, getting his country to within one by the force of his slap shot. It was his second such goal of the game.

“I was just in my spot, and they just found me, and I ripped the puck,” Kulich told EP Rinkside after the game.

It was a lot more than that though, even if I appreciate his modesty. Because according to several of his teammates and even his coach, it was Kulich who rallied the troops in the locker room between periods and kept their spirits high on the bench. Even when the odds were against them.

“We talked in the dressing room, I told the guys that I don’t think there’s too many people out there who believe that we can do it,” Czech head coach Patrik Augusta said. “We are the team and we have to believe in each other. I have the biggest respect for the players, especially Jiří Kulich. He was the leader. Not only was he in the right place on the ice and he scores some key, key goals for us, but the way he was acting here in the game and when we were down. Big respect for him."

Clearly, it worked. Czechia would eventually go on to win this game 8-5 after tying it with 1:54 left in regulation. They even scored the fastest consecutive goals in tournament history, with Becher popping the final goal into the empty net off a won faceoff only two (2) seconds after Dominik Rymon's 7-5 goal.

“(Kulich) was cheering everyone (on). If someone makes some mistakes, he was saying, ‘Hey, we will do it.’ He was the true leader. And I like that, because the bench was down after the fifth goal, but there was still a lot of hockey game left. He kept telling us to keep going until the buzzer sounds. He acted like that and it helped, and then he acted like that on the ice. He scores the goal.”

Kulich may not have led his team in goals or points today. That was Becher. And if there were a fourth star, he'd get it – don't get it twisted. It was the former that pushed the team to finish the comeback though.

“He’s a true captain, a true leader – the most important player for us today,” Hamara said. “He scored some really important goals, really led the team to the win.”

3. Otto Stenberg, C, Sweden (St. Louis Blues)

Otto Stenberg wasn't a player many thought of as appointment viewing in these World Juniors, at least outside of Gothenburg. In his hometown arena, where he plays club hockey with Frölunda HC, the same fans that cheered him on in the SHL always had him at the forefront of their mind, belting his name out every game in the Scandinavium.

And that’s because the Blues’ prospect hit the scoresheet in all seven contests at this year’s World Juniors! His nine points in seven games were the third most on his team and good for a share of ninth-best in the tournament. And he saved one of his best performances for the gold medal game in front of a packed and raucous crowd.

“I’m happy he can play with us next year,” Swedish head coach Magnus Hävelid said. “He has a good hockey sense, he can read and react to the game very well. He competes so hard. That’s a great person as well.”

With the host team trailing 1-0 after the first period, Stenberg drew even on the scoresheet just two minutes into the second frame. In a heated battle in the slot, the 2023 25th overall pick managed to free his stick up and get a piece of the Mattias Hävelid point shot. Its deflected the puck just enough to slip through Augustine, catch the post and ricochet in. Stenberg’s hometown, Scnadinavium arena erupted into chants of OTTO STENBERG! OTTO STENBERG. 

Unfortunately for Stenberg and Sweden, that was as close as they would come. The Americans eventually took the gold. It’s the second time in a row that Sweden has hosted the event and come up short in the gold medal game. 

Ryan Leonard calls game

As usual, Leonard came up big. He was a heavy presence for the Americans all tournament long. Driving play, facilitating opportunities, and leading the charge as a physical presence. His goal scored in the third period of the gold medal match officially put it out of reach and secured the victory for his nation.

And he made sure the Swedish fans who had been booing his team all night had their goodnight kiss.

There’s a very real chance that his celebration was the straw that stirred the chaos drink that bubbled over at the conclusion of the game and saw the two teams trade punches in the dying moments and even some bad blood in the handshake line.

For Leonard, his trophy shelf is beginning to fill up as he adds a World Junior gold medal to his U18 World Championship gold and silver medals.

The Highlight of the Day

It seemed, for a while, like Lenni Hämeenaho had punched himself a ticket to the Rinkside 3 Stars, which says nothing of the hardware Finland appeared primed to win in their afternoon tilt with the Czechs. Instead, he'll have to settle for Highlight of the Day honours. Deservedly so, I mean, what a goal.

Game Over World Juniors Discusses the Gold Medal Game

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This article is about:
World Juniors 2024 Czechia U20 Finland U20 Sweden U20 USA U20 WJC-20 Isaac Howard Lenni Hämeenaho Jiri Kulich Ryan Leonard Otto Stenberg
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