Canada and Sweden will face off for gold medal at the world junior hockey championship Friday night.
“I think it’s the two best teams that are going to meet,” Swedish goaltender Filip Gustavsson said.
Gustavsson made 29 saves and Sweden had a three-goal third period to beat the defending champion United States on Thursday in the first semifinal.
Drake Batherson had a hat trick to lead Canada over the Czech Republic 7-2 and into the title game for the third time in four years.
Canada and Sweden have played for the gold medal game three times before, in 1996, 2008 and 2009. The Canadians won all three contests.
With the expected No. 1 pick in this year’s NHL draft, defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, and several other top prospects on the roster, the Swedes believe they have the talent to claim their first gold medal since 2012. Sweden finished fourth each of the last three years after finishing second in 2013 and 2014.
“Everyone is here to win,” Swedish coach Tomas Moten said. “So if we’re not going to win tomorrow, I don’t think the feeling will be any different than last year when we lost the bronze medal game.”
The U.S. was trying to become the first country to win back-to-back gold medals since Canada claimed five straight from 2005-09. The Americans have never won a gold medal on home ice.
“This one blindsided us because we felt so strong with how we were going,” U.S. coach Bob Motzko said. “We had a vampire suck it out of us today. It just tells you how tough it is.”
Elias Pettersson, Lias Andersson, Oskar Steen and Axel Jonsson Fjallby scored for Sweden, which has not trailed in any game during the tournament. Linus Lindstrom had two assists.
“We have every chance to win gold,” Dahlin said. “We’re so excited about tomorrow.”
Sam Steel, Maxime Comtois, Jordan Kyrou and Boris Katchouk also had goals for Canada, which has won every game in dominating fashion aside from its 4-3 shootout loss to the U.S. in the preliminary round.
Canada came alive late in the first period after spotting the Czechs a 1-0 lead in the first six minutes. Steel and Batherson scored power-play goals to make it 2-1 by the end of the first.
The Canadians scored four times in a 10-minute span of the second period. Batherson, a fourth-round draft choice of the Ottawa Senators, scored his third goal to make it 6-1 with 3:02 remaining in the third and tie U.S. forward Kieffer Bellows and the Czech Republic’s Filip Zardina for the tournament lead with seven goals.
Zardina, one of the top prospects eligible for this year’s NHL draft, scored both goals for the Czech Republic.
After beating Canada in a shootout to win the gold medal last year, the U.S. will try for its sixth bronze medal against the Czechs on Friday. The Americans placed third in 1986, 1992, 2007, 2011 and 2016.
“The goal at the beginning of the tournament when everything starts is gold medal,” Bellows said, who scored his tournament-leading seventh goal against Sweden. “But I know we have to push this behind us and get ready for the bronze medal game. We’re doing this for the team in the locker room and USA Hockey as a whole.”
The Czech Republic last won a bronze medal in 2005. Czechoslovakia placed third six times from 1977-1993.
Bellows and Brady Tkachuk scored late goals for the U.S. after Sweden built a 4-0 lead midway through the third period.
The U.S. controlled the action for much of the first two periods before Pettersson’s power-play goal put Sweden ahead 1-0 with 6:30 left in the second.
With U.S. defenceman Dylan Samberg in the penalty box for high-sticking, Pettersson, the Vancouver Canucks’ No. 5 overall pick last year, received a pass in the left faceoff circle from Buffalo Sabres 2016 first-round selection Alex Nylander and one-timed a slap shot over Woll’s shoulder into the far corner of the net.
Nylander’s assist gave him 28 career points at the world juniors, equaling father Michael Nylander for fourth on Sweden’s career list.
Gustavsson’ preserved the lead when stopped U.S. forward Casey Mittelstadt on a 3-on-0 breakaway in the final minute of the second period. Mittlestadt, the Sabres’ most recent first-round pick, entered the game leading the tournament with 10 points.
Andersson made it 2-0 when he tapped in his sixth goal of the tournment on a 2-on-1 with Fredrik Karlstrom early in the third period. Steen and Jonsson Fjallby scored shorthanded goals 38 seconds apart before the U.S. pulled goaltender Joseph Woll with 11:25 remaining.
“We failed Joe tonight,” Motzko said. “Joe didn’t fail us.”
Bellows scored on a power play to end Gustavsson’s shutout bid with 7:36 remaining. Tkachuk’s goal came with 3:01 left to play and the U.S. was unable to score on a power play in the closing minutes.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas dropped the ceremonial first puck wearing a replica of one of his older Buffalo Bills jerseys, matching the U.S. uniforms. Team USA also wore the blue jerseys and pants during its preliminary-round win over Canada outdoors at the Bills’ New Era Field.