WJC 2013: U.S., Canada set for high-stakes rematch
If you're a hockey fan on this continent and enjoy the passion of the World Junior Hockey Championship, this is about as much as you can ask for.
Team USA and Canada, on the biggest stage to date in this tournament, battling it out with everything on the line. Winner gets its name on the gold medal game dance card, and the loser settles for a bronze medal (at best).
Apologies to other games going on in the tournament, but it really doesn't get much better than this.
And the stage they're playing on has been set up wonderfully: Canada has stormed through the tournament and won each of its first four games -- albeit not without a bit of drama. The Canadians blew out Germany to open the World Junior, fell behind 3-1 to Slovakia before rallying for a win, held off the United States in a thriller, and finished off the preliminary round with a mighty impressive victory over the host Russians.
Defeating Russia clinched the "group of death" for Canada, and pushed it through to the semifinal to await the winner of yesterday's quarterfinal between the United States and the Czech Republic.
For the Americans, they feel as if they are getting better with each game and are more well-positioned to take on Canada than a week ago. A big reason is confidence; Team USA only got one puck behind Malcolm Subban in the preliminary round meeting, and they really had to work for it. The same happened in their game with Russia -- Andrei Makarov made 41 saves and stymied nearly everything the U.S. threw his way.
On the other side of the coin (aside from the win over Russia), Team Canada looked most dangerous in its game with the United States -- but U.S. goaltender John Gibson was equally superb, and has been throughout the tournament. A blown coverage mistake on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' opening goal and another defensive lapse in front of Gibson resulted in Canada's only two goals of the game. It was a classic rivalry game: both teams traded their best punches, and engaged in a true hockey chess match where one blink is the difference.
The U.S. made Subban work hard for the 2-1 win and brought the house in the third period. Jacob Trouba's goal brought Team USA within one in the final stanza but Subban held strong between pipes, helping Canada escape a late charge and a minor penalty that produced a 6-on-4 advantage to close the game.
Losing that game to Canada spelled an uphill battle for Team USA to reach the medal round. They entered Monday's final preliminary round game against Slovakia in a "do or die" situation; a win meant advancing to the quarterfinal and a loss meant they were bound for the relegation round.
Relegation fears were quickly erased with an emphatic win over the Slovaks, and it was followed up by another offensive explosion against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinal. The United States has scored 16 goals in its last two games, and as a whole, the team feels as if its best hockey lies ahead.
"I think each game we've played, we've improved," U.S. head coach Phil Housley told NHL.com. "Even in our losses (2-1 to both Russia and Canada), I thought we were getting better as a team. Against Slovakia we broke out in the scoring column and on the power play and against the Czechs we got the early goal which is important. But there are areas that need improving if we're going to move forward against Canada."
The power play Housley mentioned has been red-hot, and in the past couple of games, the Americans have vaulted up to No. 1 in the tournament in terms of power play efficiency (36.4 percent). They scored five power play goals against the Czechs and seemed to hone in on doing the little things (getting shots through, fighting for rebounds, and clean entries) to get results on the man advantage.
You just know special teams are going to be a story line in this game, especially considering how tight the IIHF officials have called these games. For as much attention as the U.S. penalty kill has garnered -- it's the best in the tournament at just over 91 percent -- the Americans have certainly had their share of reps.
Be on the lookout later tonight for lines, pairings and any other news that comes our way in advance of tomorrow's game. Faceoff is 4 a.m. ET, and the game will air live on the NHL Network and stream live on NHL.com.