The Swedish National Junior Team earned a return trip to the gold medal game of the World Junior Championship on Thursday following a dramatic 3-2 shootout decision over Russia in Ufa, Russia.
Sebastian Collberg, a second-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens last June, scored in the third round of a shootout and Niklas Lundstrom made the final save against Nikita Kucherov to seal the deal for Sweden, which scored a dramatic 1-0 overtime victory over Russia in last year's gold-medal match to end 30 years of championship futility.
"It was tough game and I'm happy we managed to beat them and send them out of the tournament," Swedish captain Filip Forsberg told TSN.
The last time Tre Kronor played for the gold medal in back-to-back years was 2008 and 2009, when it won silver both times after setbacks to Canada in the final game. Sweden looks to become the first country since Canada (2005-2009) to win back-to-back gold medals.
They will get that chance Saturday against the United States, a 5-1 victor over Canada in the other semifinal-round match on Thursday. The game is set for 8 a.m. (NHLN-US, TSN) at Ufa Arena. The Americans are making their first appearance in the gold medal game since 2010, when they scored an overtime victory over Canada in the final game in Saskatoon.
"It's hard to tell how the game [against the United States] will be a couple of minutes after we've played, but we played [the U.S.] before [in pre-tournament competition in Finland] and they have good defensemen so we'll have to work hard in their zone," Forsberg, a 2012 draft pick of the Washington Capitals, said.
The matchup between the United States and Sweden marks the first time the countries will meet for the gold medal at the WJC since the inception of the playoff system by the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1996.
Collberg anticipates a good game against the United States.
"They have a really good team this year," 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."
Russia will play Canada in the bronze medal game slated for Saturday at 4 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN). The Canadians scored a 4-1 victory over Russia in preliminary-round action of Group B pool play on Monday to earn an automatic bye into the semifinals of the medal round.
"We have to win this game now [on Saturday]," Russia's Daniil Zharkov told the IIHF website. "It's the second time we'll play [Canada] in the tournament. We have to get the bronze medal."
In the shootout, Russian goalie Andrey Vasilevskiy stopped Mikael Vikstrand and Victor Rask before Collberg's clincher on a rising backhander over the goalie's right pad. Lundstrom was forced to deny Buffalo Sabres prospect Mikhail Grigorenko, Edmonton Oilers prospect Nail Yakupov and Kucherov (Lightning) in the shootout.
"It means a lot to take [this accomplishment] with me to the final and have that confidence in my game," Collberg told the IIHF website.
In the early stages of the 10-minute overtime period, Sweden's Rickard Rakell had the first good attempt when he skated across the slot before releasing a shot that Vasilevskiy deflected harmlessly into the corner. Russia's Albert Yarullin had a great chance in the other direction when he skated down his right wing before curling the defender and backhanding a shot that deflected off the left arm of Lundstrom.
Yakupov had one final rush to end the OT, skating 175 feet before releasing a backhand that Lundstrom easily turned away.
"This game could have been the final and Team USA is another good team," Swedish coach Roger Rönnberg said. "We have to play the same way. We have to play aggressive from the start. We have to play with passion from the start."
Grigorenko had pulled Russia into a 2-2 tie to the delight of the hometown faithful at Ufa Area 7:56 into the third when he poked a loose puck over the left pad of Swedish goalie Niklas Lundstrom. As they have done all tournament, Grigorenko and linemate Nikita Kucherov made the play happen with tremendous work in the Sweden end and in front of Lundstrom.
Lundstrom made a great save on Yakupov with 4:35 remaining in the third and the score, 2-2. The Russian captain skated into the slot from the half boards and launched a quick backhand attempt that was turned away by the St. Louis Blues prospect.
The game might well have been Yakupov's best of the tournament. The 2012 first pick had one assist, took three shots and finished with a plus-1 rating for the game.
Sweden seemed to have the better of the play in the opening 26 minutes to open a 2-0 lead before Russia roared back.
The Swedes opened a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal by top 2013 NHL Draft prospect Elias Lindholm at the 6:35 mark of the first. Lindholm took a pass from Rask right in front of Vasilevski before sliding a backhand shot into the net.
The Swedes made it 2-0 at 9:38 when Forsberg ripped a shot from between the circles that beat Vasilevskiy top shelf on the glove side.
"The first 20 minutes were the best my team has performed, not only in this tournament, but in the three years I've been the coach," Rönnberg said. "We played close to perfection."
The Swedes actually outshot their opponent, 40-29, and if not for the goaltending of Vasilevskiy, who made 38 saves, Sweden would have probably earned the victory in regulation.
"That was the game plan … there was a big crowd here so we tried to steal the game away to kind of own the game from the start," Forsberg said. "I believe we did that. We got two early goals and the first period was good."
"That was the game plan … there was a big crowd here so we tried to steal the game away to kind of own the game from the start. I believe we did that. We got two early goals and the first period was good."
-- Swedish captain Filip Forsberg
At the other end, Lundstrom was also solid. Following a quiet first period when Russia only mustered two shots, he was called upon to make 25 of his 27 saves the remainder of the game.
Russia pulled to within 2-1 when defenseman Andrei Mironov scored his first of the tournament off a blast from the top of right circle at the 7:32 mark. The goal by Mironov, assisted by Yakupov and Kirill Kapustin, was only the fourth shot on goal recorded by Russia.
Still, the goal appeared to ignite the host country and the boisterous crowd at Ufa Arena. The comeback was on.
Lundstrom made his best stop of the second with his team shorthanded and ahead, 2-1. That's when Grigorenko took a pass from Kucherov at the left post, but had his attempt denied by the pad of Lundstrom. Less than three minutes later, Edmonton prospect Zharkov fired a shot from the right circle that rang off the crossbar.
It's a bit of a surprise Sweden even reached the gold medal game, considering the team is without four key players on defense due to injuries -- Jesper Pettersson (broken wrist/shoulder), Oscar Klefbom (shoulder), Jonas Brodin (clavicle) and Hampus Lindholm (concussion).
"I can't even express how impressed I am with our D-men because they were playing against world class forwards [on Thursday] and playing so good," Forsberg said. "I'm really impressed with how well everyone played."
But coach Rönnberg, who guided the country last year at the WJC, refused to use injuries as an excuse. Instead, it was a reason to play even harder. In fact, defenseman Tom Nilsson (Toronto Maple Leafs) was named Sweden's player of the game against Russia.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale