The U.S. is on a roll entering its gold-medal showdown with Sweden at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Belarus on Friday.
The defending champs advanced with back-to-back shutouts of the Czech Republic (6-0) in the quarterfinals and Finland (5-0) in the semifinals, in which they gave up a combined 25 shots.
"Our commitment has been to details on both sides of the puck and I just think we're not doing anything out of the ordinary," U.S. coach Kurt Kleinendorst
told NHL.com. "We are making a commitment to play 60 minutes with or without the puck."
They'll have to do that one more time, against an opponent they learned the hard way they can't slack off against. On the first day of the tournament, the U.S. had a 2-0 second-period lead on Sweden, only to allow four unanswered goals en route to a 4-2 defeat -- their only loss of the tournament.
"Obviously we're disappointed with the result, especially since we were in a position to get it done with a 2-0 lead," Kleinendorst said after that game. "To not get it done is difficult, but this is one game and it's a long tournament. We'll have to regroup tomorrow. It's time to push back."
Leading that push-back has been goaltender Jack Campbell
. NHL Central Scouting's No. 2-rated goalie for the 2010 Entry Draft, Campbell has gotten better as the tournament has gone on, and enters the gold-medal game with three straight shutouts and a scoreless streak of 228:02. He hasn't allowed a goal since the first period of the Americans' second game, against Switzerland.
"Jack is very level-headed," Kleinendorst said. "The pressure doesn't affect him; in fact, he thrives on it. I think there is a strong correlation between the team's play and Jack's stats. Not to take anything away from him -- when we need big saves, he makes them -- but overall this has been a team effort."
Playing in the gold-medal game for the second straight year brings Campbell's year full-circle. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound native of Port Huron, Mich., broke onto the scene by backstopped the U.S. to a gold medal at last year's U-18 championship in Fargo, N.D. He replaced starter Adam Murray, went 6-1-0 with a 0.75 goals-against average and two shutouts, and earned a spot on the tournament's all-star team.
Campbell then excelled at the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, had a strong start to his regular season, backstopped the U.S. to a memorable gold medal at the World Junior Championship in Saskatoon in January, and earned a top-two spot in NHL Central Scouting's goaltender rankings for the June draft.
"It's been an unbelievable year," Campbell said. "I've been fortunate enough to play on three great U.S. teams with tremendous players and coaches. Each tournament I've played in has given me great memories and I've gained valuable experience on the international stage, as well as competing with and against the best players in the world my age and older."
He has one more game to win to round out his memorable year. In the first game, Chase Balisy gave the U.S. a first-period lead, and Brandon Saad's goal 2:24 into the second put the U.S. in control. But a power-play goal by Swedish captain Johan Larsson
cut the lead in half, and then Henri Snall and Larsson beat Campbell 2:45 apart to give Sweden a 3-2 lead. Victor Rask scored into an empty net for the final goal.
"Clearly we have a tough task at hand," Campbell said of facing Sweden. "They beat us in the opening game. They are a very highly skilled team and work hard for 60 minutes. We'll have to play our 'A' game to beat them. However, I feel that the opening loss prepared us better for this game and helped us get better throughout the tournament."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com