Kessel leads U.S. against Sweden

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 12:42 PM ET

GRAND FORKS, N.D -- The U.S. must travel through Russia to get to the final at the 2005 world junior hockey championship. The defending champions defeated Sweden 8-2 last night to gain a semifinal berth against Russia tonight.

The Americans beat the Russians 5-4 on Christmas Day, the only loss Russia had during the round-robin.

The Russians are led by Alexandre Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, selected first and second, respectively, by the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2004 NHL entry draft.

Ovechkin is second in tournament scoring, behind Canada's Patrice Bergeron, with five goals and three assists. Bergeron has three goals and seven assists.

Seventeen-year-old Phil Kessel of Madison, Wis., is the emerging U.S. star at this tournament. The slick-skating right-winger, who isn't eligible for the NHL draft for another year, scored three goals and assisted on another last night.

He has four goals in his first world junior appearance.

"Thank God for Phil Kessel, he was the difference," U.S.coach Scott Sandelin said of the youngest player on the U.S. team.

Two goals against the Swedes were on end-to-end rushes.

"He's an exciting, dynamic player," said former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button, now a pro scout with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Button pegs Kessel, who is six-foot, 185 pounds, as a top-three pick in 2006.

"What's really interesting is he went right after all those big Swedish defencemen one-on-one," Button said. "He really attacked them. He's hungry to score."

Kessel is still in high school and has yet to commit to a U.S. college.

"I guess this was the night tonight," the youngster said.

"I feel real relaxed out there. I had no hesitations (coming here). Where ever they fit me in is fine. I'm young so I've got a couple more years left so I just want to do anything I can to help the team out."

Rob Schremp of the London Knights scored the sixth goal on a power play. It was his third of the tournament. He said the U.S. is ready for the Russians.

"They have a really good transition game and Ovechkin and Malkin like to run the puck and we've got to put the body on key guys like them," Schremp said.

"I think we'll be really successful. They don't intimidate us at all. We played them very good the first game and we've only gotten better since the tournament started, so I think we'll be prepared for them.

"It gives us confidence knowing we outplayed them the first game a lot. They got some cheesy goals, so I think we know what they have and we'll be ready for them."

Schremp said it has been a pleasure watching Kessel.

"Kessel's sick. He's such a good player. He's going to be such a great player coming up. He's unbelievable to watch.

"He excites the fans and that's what the game needs, a little more guys like him who can dangle the puck."

Schremp said the end-to-ends were "amazing."

"A lot of teams play trap hockey so you don't see much end-to-end rushes any more, so to watch him go through a team like that is pretty exciting.

"We were laughing on the bench. There's nothing you can do but laugh. He's amazing."

The U.S. was forced to play a quarter-final after it finished third in its group with a 2-2 record, which included losses to Belarus and the Czechs.

Since the 10-team, two-group format was introduced at the 1996 championship, on three occasions a country that didn't finish first in its grouping has won the gold medal.

Canada did it in 1997, beating the U.S. in the final, while the Russians have done it in 1999 and 2003, beating Canada in the final both times.

Czech Republic 3, Finland 0

Marek Schwarz made 21 saves as the Czech Republic shut out Finland 3-0 yesterday at the world junior hockey championship.

The Czechs opened the scoring in the second period when Petr Vrana scored on the power play, beating Finnish goaltender Tuukka Rask.

Rostislav Olesz scored short handed in the third period to make it 2-0 for the Czechs. Roman Cervenka made it certain with just over two minutes left, scoring while both teams were down a man.

Rask finished with 30 saves for Finland.

The Czech Republic will meet Canada in today's semifinal round (TSN, 4:30 p.m. EST).

"We're very happy with the win," Schwarz said.

"I've seen Canada play, they are very good. We're playing very well. I think we're ready to play them now."

Switzerland 5, Germany 0

Victor Stancescu scored twice and Michael Tobler made 19 saves as Switzerland blanked Germany in relegation-round action. Beat Schuler, Marco Kaser and Rafael Diaz also scored for Switzerland.

Youri Ziffzer made 41 saves for the Germans.

UNITED STATES 8 SWEDEN 2


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