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Tuesday, January 4, 2005
Updated: January 5, 8:32 PM ET
U.S. fails to win back-to-back medals

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Plagued by illness, injury and ultimately chronic sloppiness and a lack of discipline, the United States bowed out of the World Junior Championship with an excruciating 3-2 overtime loss to the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game Tuesday.

In their second loss to the Czech Republic in the tournament, the Americans twice erased one-goal deficits only to see Czech captain Petr Vrana beat defenseman Jeff Likens one-on-one before dribbling a shot past Al Montoya 2:38 into overtime.

"It was pretty weak but it went in," Vrana said. "It was sweeter for us because the U.S. was at home and I don't think we had the greatest team we could have."

The medal was the first for the Czechs since they won back-to-back golds in 2000 and 2001, while the Americans failed in their bid to win back-to-back medals for the first time in tournament history. The U.S. won last year's gold medal in Finland.

"It's a feeling you don't want to have, really disappointing," said Drew Stafford, Team USA's best player and a member of last year's team. "We felt as though we played a good game. I guess it just wasn't meant to be."

As disappointing as this loss was for Team USA, it was a microcosm of its collective tournament performance.

For the fifth straight game the Americans gave up the first goal, a power-play marker by Michal Polak with 3:26 elapsed. And again, especially early on, the Americans' inability to stay out of the penalty box disrupted their flow. They were the most penalized team in the tournament, averaging 23:10 in penalties per game, and added 9:01 more in the first two periods Tuesday. Team USA did not take a penalty in the third period or overtime when they played their most inspired hockey, peppering Czech goalie Marek Schwarz, who was named the tournament's best netminder, with 15 shots.

"You had a lot of ups and downs in this tournament," said Team USA's Scott Sandelin, who was coaching in his first major international competition.

The U.S. lost the offensively gifted Chris Bourque to injury early in the tournament, and team officials said veterans Dan Fritsche and Ryan Suter -- the U.S. captain who was selected to the all-tournament team on defense -- were both battling illness throughout. Sandelin also cited a lack of consistency as a problem and that extended to goaltending where Montoya, the top goaltender in last year's tournament, was expected to be a leader. Instead, Montoya's play was marked by soft goals at critical times, none more critical than the Vrana shot that soured a 34-save performance.

"It's hard in this kind of tournament because it's such a short time period," Stafford said. "You need chemistry right away; you need it in your practices. You need to build it right away and you need to start right from day one."

The Americans, who finished 3-4, seemed poised to be in the gold-medal hunt when they beat one of the tournament favorites, Russia, on Christmas night. But after opening the competition 2-0 with a win over Switzerland, the Americans faltered, going 1-4 -- including a shocking 5-3 loss to Belarus that cost them a bye into the semifinal round.

"It might have taken us too long to get together and get going," said Stafford, who finished with a team-best nine points. "We kind of plateaued a bit for a while instead of gradually getting better and better as the tournament went on."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.