- Scott Burnside, NHL
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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Not so long ago, a berth in the bronze-medal game of the World Junior Championship would have seemed like a gift from the hockey gods for America's under-20 hockey program.
In the wake of Sunday's disheartening 7-2 loss to Russia in this year's semifinal, such an opportunity against the Czech Republic on Tuesday afternoon seems like so much less. That is the price of success.
"We expected to get to the championship game, expected to play for the gold. It's a disappointment for us," said defenseman Jeff Likens, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin and a member of last year's seminal gold-medal effort in Helsinki, Finland. "Still, it's a big accomplishment if you look at the big picture. Everybody had us placed fifth, sixth in the tournament. We stepped it up and still have to get that one more win."
After playing their fourth game in five days, the fatigue showed in the faces of the U.S. players. Beneath that was the unmistakable look of dreams crushed. After winning the country's first gold medal in this tournament a year ago, there were high expectations despite a significant turnover in both players and coaches.
"It's going to sit in the back of our heads. This is really a huge loss for us. It's one of those things at home. You don't want to do it, you want to be as successful as possible at home," said Drew Stafford, a member of the gold-medal squad a year ago who was playing on his home rink as a member of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux.
Having beaten the Russians 5-4 on Christmas Day to open the tournament, and coming off an 8-2 thumping of Sweden in Saturday's quarterfinal, the Americans were optimistic they had turned a corner after losing back-to-back games to Belarus and the Czech Republic and dropping to third in Group A.
But the World Junior Championship is a tournament where future NHL stars abound, and the Russians possess two of the most gifted in Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the first and second overall picks in the 2004 NHL draft, by the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively.
From the outset of Sunday's game the Americans had no answer for the Russian glimmer twins, who will now move on to face Canada in the gold-medal game, the third time in four years the traditional hockey rivals will face off in the final.
Time and time again, the Russian snipers drove the net, forcing Al Montoya into dramatic saves. Had Ovechkin opted to shoot more often instead of trying to make an extra pass, the outcome would never have been in doubt for the Russians. In the end, the pair accounted for four goals and two assists, as the Russians took advantage of repeated defensive breakdowns and American penalties.
"When they have that kind of offensive power on their team, it's hard to keep up with it," Stafford said.
Some will look back on a glorious opportunity with 12 seconds left in the second period as a turning point, when the hero of Saturday's quarterfinal, Phil Kessel, was left with an open net on a delayed penalty call. But instead of the game being tied at 3, Russian netminder Anton Khudobin, minus his stick, dove across the crease and snared Kessel's backhand with his blocker hand.
Later, midway through the third period and with the score still holding at 3-2 despite a large territorial edge for the Russians, the Americans should have been awarded a power play when Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Dimitri Vorobiev deliberately shoved the Russian net off its moorings. No call was made. Moments later, Malkin sealed the deal with a smart wrist shot that beat Montoya to the short side. The Russians added two empty-net goals and an even-strength one as time ran out to round out the scoring.
But it would be foolish to hold on to those incidents as though they might truly have made a difference. They wouldn't have. Although the American squad is blessed with significant talent, they seemed out of sync and disorganized. Faced with a faster, more talented Russian squad, U.S. players were repeatedly penalized for trying to slow down their opponents, disrupting the flow of the game and playing to the Russians' strengths. The Russians scored twice on the power play and enjoyed 19:25 of power-play time.
After the game, Malkin said he thought the Americans looked tired.
Now the Americans must search for an extra wellspring of energy and motivation for the bronze-medal game against a Czech team that already has defeated them once in this tournament.
In some ways, it will be the greater test of character for a team that had hoped for so much more.
"We can't hold our heads down we've got to keep our heads up and keep on moving forward and finish this tournament on a good note," said captain Ryan Suter, a Nashville Predators prospect who has played on Team USA for the past three tournaments.
"It's huge. It's going to show a lot of character and we're going to have to come out here and show that USA Hockey is going in the right direction," added Montoya, who stopped 36 of 41 Russian shots. "We have a great group of guys here that are fully capable of doing it."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
12hPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald