|Alex Galchenyuk, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, will be key if the U.S. wants to win Thursday . (USPressWire)|
There are big games and then there's USA-Canada. The 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship will be infused with a double-dose of the North American rivalry as the U.S. National Junior Team earned a rematch with Canada in the semifinals Thursday at 4 a.m. ET. You might want to take a break from that sleep thing for this one.
Forty-one NHL Draft picks, four projected 2013 first-rounders, a combined 47 goals in the tournament and two of the stingiest netminders in the rivalry's history is what hockey fans have to wake up for. All of that pales in comparison to what's on the line: A trip to the gold-medal game.
The winner of Thursday's contest will take on either Russia or Sweden in the World Junior Championship final Saturday, while the loser will have to settle for playing for bronze.
In the preliminary-round, the two teams met and played one of those classic USA-Canada games that went right down to the wire. Canada outlasted the U.S. thanks to two first-period goals and some incredible goaltending from Bruins first-rounder Malcolm Subban.
While the U.S. was in it to the very end, it clearly had trouble generating high-percentage scoring chances and the ones they did get got thwarted by the Canadian netminder, leading to Canada's eventual 2-1 victory.
The slate is wiped completely clean however when you reach the medal round. Team USA has new life, and, coming off a 7-0 quarterfinal win against the Czech Republic, momentum.
Canada earned the bye by finishing in first place in Group B. They'll be well-rested, but sometimes that bye isn't as beneficial as you'd think. Last year -- on home ice no less -- Canada earned a bye to the semis and ended up getting stunned by Russia. The same thing happened on the other side of the bracket as Finland lost to eventual gold medalist Sweden after winning its group.
The Canadians might have learned their lesson with six returnees from last year's squad on this year's roster. They certainly won't be taking the U.S. lightly.
Canada came into the tournament the heavy favorite with its roster featuring several players that in all likelihood would have been in the NHL if not for the lockout. That hasn't changed with Canada the only team to finish group play with a perfect 4-0-0-0 record.
Team USA meanwhile suffered losses to Russia and Canada in the preliminary round to finish in third place in Group B. The U.S. needed a victory over Slovakia to make the medal round, which it got in a 9-3 rout, and later took care of the Czechs in the quarterfinals. Having scored 16 goals in its last two contests, the U.S. players seem to have found the offense that eluded them in those two prelim-round losses.
To get you prepped for this gigantic game, here are five things to watch for when Team USA meets Canada at 4 a.m. Thursday on NHL Network in the U.S. and TSN in Canada.
When USA meets Canada, the disdain for each other is palpable. The last meeting between the two teams was against type as one of the least physical USA-Canada games you'll ever see. With the stakes a little higher this time around, both teams will look to establish some type of physical presence.
That's a little more difficult on the big ice and with IIHF officiating, but both teams will want to play the body more this time around.
The emotions of this game jump through the television screen when these two get together. Both teams will have to find a way to channel that emotion in the right way in order to have success.
The most recent semifinal matchup between the two came in 2011 in Buffalo. Canada overmatched the U.S. in that one as Team USA dropped a 4-1 decision.
Canada has dominated the all-time series, but the last two U.S. wins against their archrival have come in big games, the 2004 and 2010 gold-medal games. Is this the year Team USA gets over the semifinal hump against their archrival?
Malcolm Subban won the first round against Team USA's John Gibson (Anaheim), but it was close. Gibson is ahead of Subban in the stats department, with a 1.51 goals-against average (tops in the tournament) and .950 save percentage (second in the WJC) in five starts. Subban isn't far behind, ranking third in Ufa with both a .930 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average in four appearances.
In all likelihood, Thursday's game is going to come down to the men between the pipes. Both teams can have loads of confidence in their masked men to get the job done. If you love goaltending, you're probably going to love this game.
There's just so much talent in this game, it's actually a little silly. Led by former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers), who is atop the statistical leaderboard with 11 points through four games, this game will feature some of the brightest young stars not in the NHL.
Sixteen first-round draft picks will play in this semifinal match-up. Canada claims 11 of those players, while the U.S. has five. There will also be four projected first-round picks for the 2013 draft, including three players who should go within the top five. The U.S. has Seth Jones, while Canada boasts Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon. Team USA's Ryan Hartman is the other likely first-rounder in the game.
Among the standout performers in the WJC are the aforementioned RNH and Team USA's Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg) and Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal). The American duo is tied for third in tournament scoring with eight points apiece, while Trouba's four goals and four assists lead all defensemen.
Heroes and Goats
The single-game elimination format brings heightened pressure and therefore the high probability of mistakes. We've seen it year after year in this series where one small play ends up deciding the whole game.
Of the last 15 meetings between the two teams, 10 have been decided by a single goal. It doesn't take much.
The margin for error seems so thin at the World Junior championship. Whoever takes better advantage of the mistakes is usually the team that ends up skating out with a W.
Heroes of the recent past include John Carlson, who scored the overtime game-winner in 2010 that claimed gold for the U.S., while John Tavares was the hero in Canada's stunning comeback in a 2009 preliminary-round game in Ottawa, scoring a hat trick in that contest. Who will be next?
So often in the World Junior Championship, it is a game of adjustments. The coaches who make the best decisions and put their players in a position to succeed so often decide the game.
Think back to 2010 when U.S. head coach Dean Blais pulled goalie Mike Lee in favor of then 17-year-old Jack Campbell in the middle of the gold-medal game. Campbell was sensational in relief and made the key save that sparked the rush leading to the golden goal.
Canada's Steve Spott is a brilliant X's and O's coach and he knows the amount of pressure on this team to win. Phil Housley is a USA Hockey legend on the ice, but in his first big tournament as a bench boss. These two made some really interesting decisions over the course of the first meeting between the two squads that led to such a thrillingly tight contest.
Housley's adjustments to Team USA's D corps proved to give his team a chance as the game wore on against Canada. The Americans mostly shut down Canada's potent offense the rest of the game, which gave them a chance late. Meanwhile, Spott made similar adjustments to Canada's defensive game, while also dialing back Canada's typically aggressive forecheck to focus more on shutting down the U.S.
It really was only two breakdowns in the first period that cost the U.S. the game. The U.S. was a different team from the second period on. Those adjustments made that game great.
Both Housley and Spott will have their players well-prepared for the second meeting, so it will be a really interesting duel between these two very different coaches.