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Zibanejad, Claesson Share World Junior Memories

On Winning Gold: "It Was Super Special"

by Michael Obernauer / NYRangers.com

There are 17 players in the Rangers' dressing room, and two coaches behind the bench, with experience skating in and firsthand memories of the World Junior Championships. There are seven gold medals and three silvers for four different countries in that Rangers room - so a lot of these Blueshirts know exactly what K'Andre Miller and his American teammates will be going through when they hit the ice in Vancouver on Saturday night to face Finland with the 2019 WJC gold medal on the line.

It's probably fair to say, though, that none of them has a moment quite like Mika Zibanejad.

"Oh you don't even have to ask," Zibanejad said with a broadening smile when the subject of the World Juniors came up. "Of course, of course - the Golden Goal."

Miller, who turns 19 on Jan. 21, is the Rangers' No. 22 overall pick in last summer's draft who leads all NCAA freshman defensemen in scoring for Wisconsin and is playing in the World Junior Championships for the first time. Zibanejad was an 18-year-old first-round draft pick (sixth overall) of the Ottawa Senators when he was selected onto Sweden's entry at the 2012 tournament. By that time he already had gotten a taste of NHL hockey, playing nine October games with the Senators when the WJC got started in December of 2011.

Playing for Sweden at that time meant carrying the weight of some ill-fated history on your shoulders: the Tre Kronor had not come home with a WJC gold medal since their lone championship in 1981. But the 2012 group arrived in Alberta carrying the likes of Zibanejad, Filip Forsberg and William Karlsson, among others.

"Coming into that tournament there had been talk for quite a few years before that, we haven't won in 30 years or whatever - ours was 31 years coming into that," Zibanejad told NYRangers.com. "But I remember us having a really, really good group of guys, really jelled well together early on. It just, I don't know, it felt special going into that tournament."

After defeating their Canadian hosts in the pre-tournament game, the Swedes, playing their games at the Saddledome in Calgary, won all four matches in the group stage, then got past the Finns in a semifinal shootout to reach the gold-medal match on Jan. 5, 2012, facing Russia, who had dispatched Canada, 6-5, in the other semifinal.

"That's one of the things we talked about was getting better through the tournament, and I thought that's what we did," Zibanejad said. "Not saying that we had a bad start on purpose, but I think we grew throughout the whole tournament, we really got better.

"In that last moment it was good for us to play Russia, because the Canadian crowd was with us. And we felt the energy."

They rode that energy in the gold-medal match to a 17-3 shots advantage after the first period, and 39-4 through two. But with Andrei Markov - the surprise starter for the Russians - flawless in goal, and the Swedes holding the tournament's leading scorer, Evgeny Kuznetsov, in check, the teams took a scoreless draw into overtime.

 Just over 10 minutes in, Zibanejad caught the Russians napping on a standing puck in front of the Swedish bench; he poked it ahead for himself, darted in for a breakaway, and won the tournament with a backhander, Sweden's 58th shot of the night.

"I mean, it was unbelievable," Zibanejad said. "That moment was unbelievable. But we were just playing. We had a fast team, and we played fun hockey - and I remember that, having everyone say that when we got home, that it was fun to watch."

The moment was just as fun to watch for everyone on that Sweden bench, one of whom has been teammates with Zibanejad throughout their years in hockey - from Djurgardens in Sweden, to the WJC, to Ottawa, and now with the Rangers.

Freddy Claesson calls playing for that 2012 Sweden team "one of the best memories of my life" - but in spite of his front-row seat for the Golden Goal, he wound up having a pretty lousy view of it.

"I remember I was on the ice," Claesson said, "and then I was so gassed, so I changed. Then, what was it, five or 10 seconds later, I was just sitting like this" - he put his head in his hands - "all sweaty, so tired I couldn't think. And then I just hear everyone start screaming.

"I didn't see the goal. I was just trying to get my breath back, and then I looked up, 'What's going on?' Everyone starts jumping, so I jumped out."

Did he even know who had scored? "No. I had no clue. But then I saw Mika, so I had a good feeling."

The gold medal was just the second in the event for Sweden, after the '81 title, and they have had to settle for silver three times since, including last year's loss in the final to Canada. But that 2012 win will always have its place as one of Sweden's greatest triumphs on the international hockey stage, with Zibanejad's winner as its iconic moment.

"All the guys, we'd been hanging out, working together since under-16, we'd all been together," Claesson said. "A few guys came in here and there but we had that core the whole time. And then to win it our last year there was unreal.

"Everyone was playing for each other and sacrificed themselves, playing hurt, and we were very close off the ice too. It just felt different that year. It felt like everyone was doing it for each other."

"Last tournament as a junior and being able to win, it was super special," Zibanejad said. "It's something I will always have with me."

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