As the United States put the finishing touches on its thrilling, 2-0 victory over Canada in the gold medal game of the 2021 World Junior Championship on Tuesday night in Edmonton, Alberta, an interested observer in Duluth paid close attention to the game on TV.
"It was awesome,'' said Scott Sandelin, Minnesota Duluth's men's hockey coach and the head coach of the U.S. team in the 2020 world junior tournament. "They got better as the tournament went on.''
Sandelin's U.S. team last year lost 1-0 to Finland in the quarterfinals, and eight players from that squad returned this year to seek gold in the under-20 event that is considered by many in the hockey world to be the best international tournament other than the Olympics. Among those returnees were Trevor Zegras, who led all scorers with 18 points on seven goals and 11 assists and scored a second-period goal Tuesday, and goalie Spencer Knight, who made 34 saves to shut out a Canadian team that had outscored opponents 41-4.
"You can see the leadership and the growth in some players that were even in it last year,'' Sandelin said during a video conference on Wednesday. "Obviously, Zegras had another great tournament. [Alex] Turcotte and [Cole] Caufield, too. A lot of guys who played last year, they looked different. They looked more confident, they looked stronger and certainly a lot more motivated, too.''
The loss to Finland last year supplied some of that motivation, as did the 3-2 loss to the Finns in the 2018 Under-18 World Championship gold medal game. This time, the Americans beat Finland 4-3 on a goal by Arthur Kaliyev, a returnee from the 2020 squad, with 1:16 left in the third period in the semifinals on Monday.
"That group has won a lot of hockey games together, but they really hadn't won a gold, and that's a motivator for them,'' Sandelin said. "It was great to see them play the way they did.''
Sandelin also credited the players who made their world juniors debuts this year for Team USA. Among the nine U.S. defensemen, only captain Cam York played for the 2020 team. Three of the rearguards were Gophers – freshman Brock Faber (0-5-5) and sophomores Ryan Johnson (1-3-4) and Jackson LaCombe (0-1-1) – and one was Boston College's Drew Helleson of Farmington (2-2-4).
Denver forward Bobby Brink of Minnetonka, a returnee from 2020, had two goals and four assists, and Wild prospect Matt Boldy of Boston College had five goals and two assists in his world junior debut.
"They played great, and the two best teams at the end were playing,'' Sandelin said of Team USA. "In those one-game shots, you don't know, but I thought they had a really good game. It was nice to see them make Canada chase the game.''
One thing missing, Sandelin suggested, might have made the upset even more impressive, but COVID-19 made that impossible.
"The only thing better maybe would've been beating Canada in front of 20,000 people in the stands,'' he said.