Nothing has come easy for the United States and Sweden along the path to glory at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
But perhaps the ultimate destination would not have become reality if simplicity reigned. As it stands, hard work and lessons learned have brought the teams together for the gold-medal game of the WJC for the first time in tournament history.
The countries will face off Saturday at 8 a.m. ET in Ufa Arena (NHLN-US, TSN). Sweden, the defending gold medalist, will look to become the first team since Canada (2005-2009) to win back-to-back gold medals.
The United States, meanwhile, is gunning for its second WJC championship in four years -- the Americans won the 2010 tournament with a 6-5 overtime win against Canada in Saskatoon.
Russia and Canada will play in the bronze-medal game Saturday (4 a.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN).
It wasn't too long ago that American coach Phil Housley was pondering ways to ignite a struggling offense that produced just two goals in back-to-back preliminary-round losses to Russia and Canada. The solution was to insert Jimmy Vesey on the top line beside John Gaudreau and J.T. Miller.The results were greater than Housley could ever have imagined. In three games following the switch, the Americans have scored 21 goals, including a 5-1 defeat of Canada in the semifinals Thursday. Gaudreau, a 2011 fourth-round draft pick of the Calgary Flames, has scored seven of those goals after going without a point in the first three preliminary-round games.
"Sweden is a great puck-possession team," U.S. defenseman Seth Jones said. "They have a lot of skilled players who know how to pass the puck and make plays, so we'll have to approach it the same way we approached the game against Canada: Get pucks in and take care of the puck."
Jones has played a big role for an offensively gifted defense corps that has chipped in with 10 goals and 27 points. That group is led by Winnipeg Jets prospect Jacob Trouba (four goals, eight points), Jones (six assists, seven points) and captain Jake McCabe (three goals, six points).
Then there's Sweden coach Roger Ronnberg, whose team had to endure an entire tournament without the services of their top four on defense due to injury: Jesper Pettersson (broken wrist/shoulder), Oscar Klefbom (shoulder), Jonas Brodin (clavicle) and Hampus Lindholm (concussion). Klefbom (Edmonton Oilers), Brodin (Minnesota Wild) and Lindholm (Anaheim Ducks) all were first-round draft picks who were expected to fortify perhaps the deepest and most experienced blue line at the WJC this year.
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Instead, Ronnberg has relied on others to pick up the slack on the back end: Senators prospect Mikael Wikstrand (four assists, plus-4 rating), Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Tom Nilsson (two assists, plus-3 rating) and Washington Capitals hopeful Christian Djoos (three assists).
"I can't even express how impressed I am with our [defensemen] because they're playing against world-class forwards and playing so good," Swedish captain Filip Forsberg said. "I'm really impressed with how well everyone has played."
Forsberg has done all he can to help alleviate the deficiencies on defense by leading his team with three goals and five points.
The Swedes are well aware that the United States, 2-1 in gold medal games all-time at the WJC, has won the past four World Under-18 Championships. In fact, 13 players on this year's U.S. team have garnered gold at those U-18 events, including four players who have won twice (Tyler Biggs, Rocco Grimaldi, Trouba and Jones).
"They have a really good team this year," Montreal Canadiens prospect Sebastian Collberg said. "They're playing really well in the whole tournament. At the last [three] U-18 tournaments, we have lost to them. So the 1993- and 1994-born players want to win the final against them. A lot of revenge, I would say."
Collberg will be looked upon to contribute offensively against a stout defensive unit for the United States. He has team-leading totals of four goals and six points in five games. He also helped eliminate the Russians in the semifinals Thursday, scoring the game-deciding goal in the third round of the shootout.
One player who quietly has garnered greater respect is U.S. goalie John Gibson, who has been great throughout the tournament, even in defeat. In 2011, Gibson was named the best goalie of the World U-18 Championship, and it wouldn't be too far-fetched to think the Anaheim Ducks prospect could duplicate that honor at the WJC with another strong effort against Sweden on Saturday.
In six games at this year's WJC, Gibson is 4-2 and leads the tournament with a 1.42 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
Sweden has received solid play from goalies Niklas Lundstrom (St. Louis Blues) and Joel Lassinantti (2013 NHL Draft eligible). Lundstrom, who earned the victory against Russia with stops against Mikhail Grigorenko, Nail Yakupov and Nikita Kucherov in the shootout, sports a 1.45 GAA and .945 save percentage. Lassinantti owns a 2.42 GAA and .915 save percentage.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale