U.S. beats host Sweden to win World Juniors gold

Team USA's Isaac Howard (22) celebrates his second goal of the game on Sweden goaltender Hugo Havelid (not shown) with teammates during second period gold medal hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. (CP)

Rutger McGroarty and his teammates remembered the empty feeling. 

They wanted to return the favour on their bitter rival’s home soil.

When the final buzzer sounded Friday, the United States — having embraced the villain role in a hostile environment — got the revenge it desperately craved. 

Isaac Howard scored twice in the second period as the Americans beat host Sweden 6-2 to capture gold at the world junior hockey championship. 

“I’m so proud of this group,” said McGroarty, the U.S. captain and a Winnipeg Jets prospect.

The Americans fell 6-4 to Sweden at the under-18 worlds in 2022 despite holding a 51-14 shot advantage before turning the tables in the 2023 rematch. 

This spectacle inside a thunderous Scandinavium arena was even sweeter.

“We remember what happened,” said Howard, who along with McGroarty and a host of others lost two years ago to the Swedes, but weren’t around 12 months later. “We made sure not to take anything for granted.” 

“We’re world champs,” McGroarty added after setting up the first goal and sealing things with an empty netter. “How much better does it get?” 

Gabe Perreault, with a goal and two assists, Zeev Buium and Ryan Leonard provided the rest of the offence for the Americans, who secured the under-20 tournament for a sixth time after last winning in 2021. Will Smith added two assists.

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Trey Augustine made 24 saves to pick up the victory. 

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to wear the USA Hockey jersey again,” said McGroarty, who nearly missed the event after suffering a broken rib and punctured lung in November. “At least we’re going out on top.” 

The Americans were booed as soon as the team touched the ice. And they loved it, even blowing kisses to the crowd in the third.

“Who doesn’t love being the villain?” McGroarty said. “Great atmosphere.” 

Montreal Canadiens prospect Lane Hutson played more than 52 minutes in 24 hours after helping the U.S. beat Finland in the semifinals. 

The five-foot-nine defenceman was also involved in a late scuffle that saw him throw and receive punches.

“Not really my thing,” said Hutson, sporting a bloodied upper lip from a high stick. “They were a little upset.” 

Otto Stenberg and Jonathan Lekkerimaki replied for the Swedes, who have claimed just two titles in the event’s 48-year history. Hugo Havelid allowed five goals on 25 shots. 

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“The boys are amazing,” said Lekkerimaki, named tournament MVP. “It’s tough.” 

Czechia roared back from a 5-2 deficit with six unanswered goals to shock Finland 8-5 and claim bronze. 

The Swedes, who have now finished second 12 times and lost to the U.S. in last year’s third-place game, have produced a long list of NHL stars.

That’s rarely translated to world junior success. 

The country’s last triumph came in 2012 after topping the field in 1981. Sweden also settled for silver on home soil in 1993 and 2014. 

“An honour to play with those guys,” said captain Liam Ohgren. “Really tough to have an ending like this.” 

The U.S. led 3-2 through 40 minutes after Lekkerimaki sliced his team’s deficit in half late in the second, but restored its two-goal advantage 1:19 into the third when Buium scored his third of the tournament. 

The Swedes killed off a double-minor, but the Americans put things out of reach with 3:48 left in regulation when Leonard buried his third. 

McGroarty added his empty netter 38 seconds later before things turned a little ugly late when players on both sides threw punches — including Hutson — as bad blood from tournaments past bubbled to the surface. 

“It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight,” McGroarty said of Hutson. “It’s about the size of fight in the dog.” 

After the dust settled, the U.S. spilled off the bench to celebrate its third gold since 2017. 

“Full team effort,” said head coach David Carle. “The crowd, the energy was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” 

Sweden came out flying inside the yellow-clad rink that included thousands of Canadian fans still in Gothenburg following their team’s stunning quarterfinal exit against Czechia — along with small pockets of U.S. support. 

“The boos, it really does help us,” Hutson said. “We’ve got guys committed to playing the right way and know it’s something bigger than ourselves.” 

The Americans withstood that early barrage and went ahead with 3:04 left in the first when Perreault finished off a patient sequence with his third on a delayed penalty. 

Sweden tied at 2:13 of the second when Stenberg tipped in his fifth. 

The U.S. steadied and went back in front at 9:24 when Howard moved in alone and slid his seventh under Havelid. 

He added his second of the night at 14:19 off a turnover and surprised Havelid with shot from a tight angle for a 3-1 lead. 

The hosts responded on a power play with 5.2 seconds left in the period when Lekkerimaki — a 2022 first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks — blasted his seventh before the U.S. pulled away in the third. 

“We were doing it for the guy next to us,” McGroarty said. “We love each other.”

They got their revenge. And a gold medal around their necks.

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