Gibson’s excellence leads US to WJC gold

Since the World Junior Championship tournament MVP award was introduced in 2004, it has been captured by Zach Parise, Patrice Bergeron, Evgeni Malkin, Carey Price, Steve Mason, John Tavares, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn and Yevgeni Kuztenzov.

Add 19-year-old Anaheim Ducks goaltending prospect John Gibson to that list.

The Pittsburgh native, who grew up a diehard Penguins fan and cut his teeth in the minor hockey associations constellated around Mellon Arena and CONSOL Energy Center, turned in the finest performance ever by an American goalie at World Juniors, backing the Stars and Stripes to its third gold medal since 2004 with a suffocating performance in net. The U.S. defeated defending champion Sweden, 3-1, in the title game on Saturday.

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Gibson said. “We just kept getting better and better, and I think the team that keeps getting better and better throughout the tournament is usually the team that ends up winning the gold medal.”

He’s speaking accurately. No other team rallied together defensively as well as the Americans, who allowed a combined six goals to Canada (two games), Russia and Sweden in their final four games. Gibson’s chemistry with a defensive corps that included team captain Jake McCabe, all-around dynamic and physical presence Jacob Trouba, and potential first overall NHL draft pick Seth Jones were among the chief reasons the United States will celebrate a tournament championship for the second time in four years.

“The defense played really well,” Gibson said. “It made my job a lot easier.”

Memories of an embarrassing seventh place finish and participation in the relegation bracket a year ago were also put to rest for the 10 returning members of Team USA.

“We wanted redemption,” Gibson said. “We wanted to come back better this year. I didn’t think we really knew what to expect, but this is just amazing right now.”

Sustaining a 5-2 record with a 1.36 goals against average, Gibson’s .955 save percentage is the highest by an American in the tournament, which began in 1977. It bested Al Montoya’s .944 gold-capturing performance in 2004 by over a tenth of a goal.

The highlights back up any statistical analysis. After denying Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Strome and Jonathan Drouin with a collection of acrobatic saves in Thursday’s 5-1 semifinals win over Canada, Viktor Arvidsson, William Karlsson and tournament standout Sebastian Collberg were posterized by Gibson’s excellence on Saturday.

With the U.S. playing its seventh game of the tournament and a slightly more rested Sweden team rallying to tie the score early in the third period, his save on Arvidsson’s wraparound attempt stood up with any of his “How’d he do that?” moments of the last two weeks.

His performance headlined a strong showing by Anaheim Ducks prospects in this tournament.

First rounder Rickard Rakell assisted on Filip Sandberg’s wristshot that opened the scoring early in the second period and finished with six assists in as many games, while Karlsson was heavily involved throughout the tournament and recorded two assists. Anaheim defensive prospect Hampus Lindholm, an 18-year-old selected sixth overall in 2012, who stepped into a significant role as an underager with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, was held out of the tournament with a concussion.

Sweden made the most of a defensive corps that was short Lindholm, Oscar Klefbom and Jonas Brodin – three first round draft picks – due to injury. Tom Nilsson and Mikael Wikstrand – teammates with Anze Kopitar and Bobby Ryan at Allsvenskan club Mora IK – stepped gracefully into their inherited minutes, as did Christian Djoos, son of former Detroit Red Wing and New York Ranger Pär Djoos. Sweden allowed 13 goals in six games, and on Saturday, lost for the first time at World Juniors play since falling to the Americans in the bronze medal game of the 2011 tournament. Sweden had carried an 11-game WJC winning streak into the gold medal game.

Rossmoor, Calif. native and Florida prospect Rocco Grimaldi scored two goals for the United States while earning player of the game honors. It’s safe to say he’s escaped head coach Phil Housley’s doghouse following a string of mild performances midway through the tournament.

“He’s the type of guy who even if he’s not scoring, he’s still producing in other ways, and it was nice to see him get the golden goal and play really well and have a breakout game,” Gibson said of Grimaldi.

Gibson, a second rounder who was the second goaltender selected in the 2011 NHL Draft, apparently found less of a challenge against Canada, Russia and Sweden than he found in trying to make the Baldwin High School hockey team as a freshman.

“I got cut from a lot of teams in Pittsburgh, and I just use it as motivation,” he said. “I just kept wanting to prove people wrong.”

Should he ever be cut again, opponents may look to the Hockey Gods for protection.

Until then, he’ll fly back to North America and rejoin his Kitchener Rangers squad shortly, where his head coach, Steve Spott, won’t likely be getting many calls returned from Hockey Canada in the near future. With a fourth-place finish, the 2013 tournament marked the first time since 1998 that the Canadians failed to medal at World Juniors. Kitchener teammate Ryan Murphy was also a member of Spott’s Canada squad, which should create an interesting dynamic when the three reconvene in Ontario.

“Right now I’m just trying to enjoy this part,” Gibson said, delaying any thoughts of rejoining the Kitchener locker room.

“We’ll worry about that when it happens.”