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U.S. National Under-18 Team still confident

by Brian Fitzsimmons

"We definitely need to play with urgency. If we don't, we won't have the chance to play for a gold medal, which is what we've worked for the last two years. We can't mess around and we have to leave it all out there."
-- U.S. defenseman William Wrenn

Despite having its back against the wall, the U.S. National Under-18 Team is beaming with confidence.

After cruising through the opening three games in the 2009 IIHF World Under-18 Championships, the United States was caught in a shoving match with Russia and absorbed the final blow in a 6-5 loss on Tuesday at Fargo, North Dakota.

Facing its first true test of the tournament, the U.S. not only failed to carry its momentum past the preliminary rounds, but also lost out on locking up the top spot in Group B and a bye into the semifinals.

If the Americans are unable to defeat the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals Thursday, they will yield a chance to capture the squad's first gold medal since 2006.

"We definitely need to play with urgency," said U.S. defenseman William Wrenn, who signed a national letter of intent to attend the University of Denver in the fall. "If we don't, we won't have the chance to play for a gold medal, which is what we've worked for the last two years. We can't mess around and we have to leave it all out there."

Remarkably, hope is not lost for the team in its quest to win the tournament, which is being held on U.S. soil for the first time in championship history.

"We knew we weren't going to walk through this tournament," forward Jeremy Morin said. "We still have confidence we'll bounce back and get it done. We're going to come out strong on Thursday."

Meanwhile, Canada used two goals from Joey Hishon of the OHL's Owen Sound Attack to earn the top spot in Group A and a pass to the semifinals by posting a 4-2 triumph over Sweden earlier in the day. In other action, Finland cruised to a 7-0 victory over Slovakia to claim first place in Group B, and the USA took second over Russia regardless of the deflating setback.

Wrenn and Morin scored goals in the first period to give the United States an early advantage, which quickly evaporated once the Russians utilized their speed and skill.

Russia opened the second with three unanswered goals before Morin forged a tie with 5:43 remaining in the session. But the frustration lingered into the final period.
Wrenn notched his second goal of the game early in the final period before the U.S. surrendered three more tallies -- including Maxim Kitsyn's game-winner with four minutes left -- and found itself in a 6-4 hole.

"We knew Russia would be a good team," Wrenn said. "They're very fast, very skilled. We just didn't play the game we needed to. We wanted to play a rush game with Russia and we needed to grind it out down low and outwork them."

Morin cut the deficit with 73 seconds remaining, but even when goaltender Adam Murray was pulled for an extra skater, the United States was unable to generate one final rebuttal.

"It was back and forth and they battled back," Morin said. "We knew going in it wasn't going to be a blow-out game, it was going to be a one-goal game. They just got the last punch in. It was a big momentum swing."

The dreary outcome immediately became puzzling, considering the U.S. had outscored Norway, Finland and Slovakia, 24-3, combined in its three victories. In addition, the team's dominance theoretically remained in tact as it outshot Russia, 55-26, overall and by a 25-7 margin in the decisive period.

Now caught in a do-or-die predicament, the United States must turn its eyes to a favorable history -- the Czech Republic hasn't defeated the Americans since 2002 -- and an unflappable poise for hints of comfort.

"We're in a good bracket and we have to be at our best," United States coach Ron Rolston said prior to the tournament. "There are probably five teams that can win this. We have a good team, but there are a lot of good teams. We have to be at our best."

The U.S. has yet to hit the panic button, though a feeling of urgency has begun to permeate throughout the locker room.

"Coach talked to us after the game and said it's a tournament -- you can expect setbacks and adversity," Wrenn said. "We can lie down, or step up and leave nothing to chance."

The world will soon find out which route this confident bunch will take.

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