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Vindication for Sweden, a dagger for the U.S.

Marcus Davidsson remembers where he was in 2012, the last time Sweden won the gold medal at the World Junior Championship.

He was home, watching the game on television, of course. Along with the rest of the country. Because that's what Sweden does.

Now Davidsson, a second-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, will get to play for gold after Sweden defeated the United States, 4-2, in front of 7,524 in KeyBank Center Thursday night.

"In Sweden almost everyone watches these games, even if you're not watching hockey at other moments. You know, the world championship," Davidsson said. "Because it plays during Christmas break almost everyone watches it. It's huge in Sweden and a gold medal would mean a lot for us."

It's the first time back in the gold medal game since 2014 and the first time in three years Sweden is guaranteed a medal. The last three tournaments, Sweden lost in the semis then lost in the bronze medal game. The three-year stint of finishing fourth is over. And Davidsson and his teammates are well aware of the history.

"We haven't been there for a couple of years. It feels very special for all of us," Davidsson said. "I think it's very important for Sweden as a nation, too, to get into the final. I'm proud of it."

While Sweden's players, and the entire country, basks in a trip to the gold medal game, the United States needs to regroup quickly. Without a chance for a gold medal repeat, the Americans are fighting to win the country's third straight medal at the World Juniors after taking bronze in 2016 and gold in 2017.

"The biggest thing is we're not done yet," U.S. coach Bob Motzko said. "Our message all along has been, 'it's our turn' meaning this team, these players, you're on call. USA's medaled two years in a row. You have something to play for. Our mission is not done yet. As disappointed as we are right now, USA hockey is a still a country developing our level of a high hockey standard and it's up to us to go out on a very strong note."

Thursday's semifinal featured a cautious first period. Sweden struck first, breaking the scoreless tie at 13:30 of the second when Elias Pettersson scored on a setup from Alexander Nylander.

With 48 seconds left in the second period came the play that summarizes the way the game went for the United States.

A breakout pass from American goalie Joe Woll threw the top three scorers for the U.S. -- Casey Mittelstadt, Brady Tkachuk, and Kieffer Bellows -- on a three-on-zero break. But Mittelstadt's shot was stopped by Sweden goalie Filip Gustavsson. And Bellows ran into Gustavsson, drawing a penalty for goaltender interference.

"To be honest, I didn't even know it was 3-on-0," Mittelstadt said. "Someone was yelling, 'go!' so I just kinda went. I've got to bury that I guess. That's what it comes down to. If I score that, it's a different game."

"We needed a spark to come our way to maybe turn the tide and it just didn't," Motzko said. "Three-on-zero breakaway with your top three scorers in the tournament and we take a penalty out of it, that kind of summed up what happened to us tonight."

Sweden extended its lead early in the third period. Timothy Liljegren had the long breakout pass to Swedish captain Lias Andersson. On the break Andersson passed to a streaking Fredrick Karlstrom who returned the puck. Andersson scored as Woll was out of position.

"I think we grew with the game," Sweden's coach Tomas Monten said. "I think the first period wasn't good from either team. I think both teams were a little bit feeling each other, keeping too much respect. Then I think we started to gain our speed in the second, started working hard and then we got a fantastic second goal. That gave us the energy."

Energy indeed as Sweden scored two shorthanded goals on the same penalty -- one from Oskar Steen and one from Axel Jonsson Fjallby -- to take a commanding 4-0 lead.

The U.S. changed goalies, putting in Jake Oettinger for Woll. Bellows finally got the U.S. a goal, scoring on the power play at 12:24.

The Americans pulled Oettinger with 3:45 left to play and scored with the extra attacker. Tkachuk jumped on a loose puck in the slot to cut the lead in half, 4-2. But the rally ran out of time.

"I mean we weren't sticking to our game plan. We weren't getting pucks behind them and getting physical on the forecheck," Tkachuk said. "Definitely it's a dagger. It was a dream of mine to win gold in this tournament. It's a tough one to swallow but we have a bronze medal tomorrow we have to win so we have to be ready for that."

It's a quick turnaround for the U.S., which will need to find a way to grind out the bronze medal game. In the semifinal, the Americans looked like they were skating on tired legs and lacked the jump to make the plays they had made earlier in the tournament.

"There were mistakes from the heart," Motzko said. "The kids wanted to do the right things tonight. It just wasn't our night. This one blindsided us because we felt so strong about how we were going. … At the end of the tournament, you get an adrenaline rush, a push. And ours was the other way. We had a vampire sucking it out of us today."

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