Winning a title at a major international tournament like the World Junior Championship takes equal parts skill and luck
In 2004, the team the United States sent to the WJC in Finland had both, and flew home wearing the gold medal.
Traditionally, the U.S. team had a middling presence at the World Juniors. There were bronze medals in 1986 and 1992 and silver in 1997, but that was the extent of the success.
Going into the 2004 event, though, there was a different buzz. The core of the U.S. team -- Patrick O'Sullivan, Zach Parise, Patrick Eaves, team captain Mark Stuart, Matt Carle, and Ryan Kesler -- had won gold two years earlier at the World Under-18 Championship in Slovakia. The Hockey News pegged the U.S. team as the gold-medal favorite.
"Going into that tournament, because that team was made up of the kids who had been on the under-18 team that had won a world championship at that level, they were getting some positive press clippings that they might be the favorites," said Mike Eaves, who coached the team.
"At that tournament, you could throw a blanket on the top five or six and they all have a chance to win it -- Sweden, Russia, Finland, Canada and the U.S. "We were getting some good press going in. We felt good about our chances because a lot of the kids had played together. We had a core of guys that understood how we were going to play. It was a matter of getting the right pieces that would fit together quickly and assimilate and see what we could get done together."
While they may have entered on a high, it didn't last long. Goaltender Jimmy Howard, the presumptive starter who had backstopped the Under-18 team to the gold, never played a game due to an infected toe. That moved Al Montoya, who had failed to make the U-18 team, into the starting role.
Montoya started well, pitching a pair of shutouts as the U.S. team opened by blanking Austria 8-0 and Slovakia 5-0. They got a late shorthanded goal from Stephen Werner to edge Sweden, 4-3, and they finished group play undefeated with a 4-1 win against Russia.
Beating a Russian team led by Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Evgeni Malkin was a turning point for the U.S. team.
"I think the way we beat them, we must have blocked 30 shots that game," said Parise. "Right there you could see the commitment we had to winning. Montoya was playing unbelievable. But right there, the way we won that game, how we convincingly won it, said we have a chance to win this thing. It was a good feeling."
In the semifinals, they faced host Finland in what USA Hockey Senior Director of Hockey Operations Jim Johannson called, "The most physical junior game I've ever seen."
The Finns had beaten the U.S. team in a pre-tournament exhibition game, and the host fans packed the Helsinki Arena. But the U.S. team quieted the crowd when Stephen Werner scored midway through the first period, and then Dan Fritsche made it 2-0 late in the third. Finland scored with 59 seconds left, but Montoya held the lead and the U.S. team skated into the finals with a hard-fought 2-1 victory.
"It was a war," said Eaves. "You had to be a man to play in that game."
In the finals, the U.S. team faced a Canadian squad that read like the roster for an NHL All-Star Game -- Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter
, Mike Richards
, Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Dion Phaneuf.
After trading goals in the first, Nigel Dawes put Canada ahead 12 seconds into the second when he tipped a Richards shot over Montoya, and then Anthony Stewart made it 3-1 with 7:04 left in the second.
"I remember going off the ice after the second period," said Carle, "and their whole team was hooting and hollering because they thought they won."
Eaves knew his team could play better, and told his players as much.
"We were a little frustrated," said Eaves. "We knew the level of hockey we could play and we hadn't played it yet. We said to the boys that we haven't played our best hockey, let's go out and do that."
"We knew we hadn't played very well," said Parise. "Whatever it was, nerves, we weren't prepared. I don't know what it was, but we didn't play well the first two periods. But it was a 3-1 game, we weren't out of it."
Eaves juggled his lines to start the third, putting Kesler with Parise and Warner and Drew Stafford with O'Sullivan and Eaves. The changes worked, as the new lines helped tie the game in a 2:19 span early in the third.
First, O'Sullivan wired a cross-ice pass from Eaves over Fleury's glove at 4:39, and then Kesler chipped a loose puck in front of the net over Fleury at 6:58.
With hard work getting them this far, it was time for a little luck to come their way. O'Sullivan chased a puck dumped into the Canadian end. Fleury tried to clear it, but the puck hit defenseman Braydon Coburn in the chest and ricocheted into the net. O'Sullivan was credited with the goal, his third of the tournament.
"We're kind of looking at each other like, 'What are you going to do with it?'" said Coburn. "I'm not sure if he was concentrating on playing the puck. He tried to fire it up the middle and it hit me in the chest and went right into the net."
"The harder you work, the luckier you get," said Eaves. "The foundation of what they did was based on the hard. They stayed with it and were rewarded for it."
Montoya, 200 feet away, had a different feeling.
"I thought there was too much time left," he said of the 5:12 left to play.
But he made the lead stand up, making 27 saves and winning the tournament's best goaltender award.
"If you watch that game, the second period we absolutely dominated that game," said Richards. "We had so many missed opportunities. … He (Montoya) won them the hockey game."
"They're right, he did win that game for us," agreed Parise. "He made some great saves."
Parise, who led the tournament with 11 points, joined Montoya on the tournament all-star team, and took home the awards for best forward and tournament MVP.
More than individual honors, the team showed the United States not only could compete, but beat, the best junior-age players in the world.
"They crashed through the wall and that's a big statement," said Johannson. "You have to win the tournament sometime to have that added measure of respect and they did it the right way. If you look at our results, our last four games we beat Sweden, we beat Russia, we beat Finland, we beat Canada. Those historically were our measuring sticks for the tournament."
It also put a stamp on the U.S. National Team Development Program, which had been started in 1996.
"It solidified the national development program," said Eaves. "I think it gave real momentum to what the program was doing and trying to achieve and solidify it for the next little while.
"It creates that history and tradition that every program tries to have. We've had some moments in USA Hockey, with the '60 (Olympic) team and '80 (Olympic) team, and the World Juniors, we can talk about them and build on them."Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Staff Writer