It’s the matchup everyone wanted to see; Canada will battle the United States for the second consecutive year in the world junior semifinals. Sportsnet.ca previews the game with insight from Stan Butler, head coach of the Brampton Battalion and a former head coach of Canada’s world junior team.
Canada (4-1) vs. U.S.A. (4-0) 2:05 p.m. ET / 11:05 a.m. PT
At Pardubice, Czech Republic
A year ago in Leksand, Sweden, these two nations battled in what might go down as the greatest game in the tournament’s history. With the score tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, Canada staved off elimination with an overtime penalty kill before Jonathan Toews made himself a national hero with his three-for-three performance in the shootout. Carey Price’s final save against Peter Mueller and the celebration that followed will be etched in the minds of fans for a long time.
The journey has certainly been different this time around for the Canadian squad. After blowing a 2-0 third-period lead against Sweden in its third round-robin game, Canada was faced with its first quarter-final game since the 2002 tournament. Though they beat Finland 4-2, the Canadians looked shaky at times and there is room for improvement.
The Americans, meanwhile, won a few close games en route to winning their pool and receiving a bye to Friday’s semifinal. The U.S. essentially won the group in its third game when it edged the Russians, 3-2. A lot of the Americans’ scoring has come from three players: James van Riemsdyk, Colin Wilson and Jordan Schroeder. This line might be the best in the tournament and will be tough to contain.
Top Five Scorers
Canada: Kyle Turris (4-2-6); Steven Stamkos (1-5-6); John Tavares (4-1-5); Josh Godfrey (0-5-5); Claude Giroux (1-3-4).
United States: James van Riemsdyk (4-6-10); Colin Wilson (6-1-7); Jordan Schroeder (0-7-7); Kyle Okposo (1-4-5); Tyler Ruegsegger (2-2-4).
For Canada to win
Canada will need Steve Mason to play above his potential. Mason looked good in a shutout win over Slovakia in the round robin but allowed two shaky goals in the quarterfinal against Finland. Mason has earned a reputation in the Ontario Hockey League for his clutch performances and he will need to make key stops at crucial times. There’s no question when Mason is on his game he’s one of the best junior goaltenders in the world.
Canada will need its top players to raise their game in a one-game showdown. A lot of Canada’s success has come from the power play and young guns John Tavares and Steven Stamkos in particular. More will be expected from the top line of Kyle Turris, Brad Marchand and Claude Giroux. Marchand made up for his giveaway in the Sweden game that led to the game-winner by scoring the deciding goal against Finland.
"I think in Canada’s case, they have to get more from some of their players like the Turrises and the Girouxes," Butler said. "Those players have to step up and have big games for them against the United States."
Since Canada’s forwards have had difficulty scoring at even strength, they will need to take advantage of their power play. Defenceman Josh Godfrey will need to utilize his cannon-like slapshot or fake it to create lanes down low. Another defenceman, Drew Doughty, might also be relied upon to make his rushes up ice which Canada has been able to convert on.
As always, the shutdown line with Brandon Sutter and Stefan Legein will need to step up. Sutter and Legein have been fantastic on a line together, showing tremendous chemistry. Both players are tough to play against and in Legein’s case, he’ll let you know about it.
Legein can get opposing players off their game through physical intimidation and trash talking and he should be up to the task against the United States’ top snipers. What Legein loses in size to a player like van Riemsdyk he could make up for in heart and determination.
Canada should face its toughest test in goal as U.S. goaltender Jeremy Smith has been fantastic in the tournament. Smith has a sparkling .938 save percentage through four games. Since Smith plays for the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL, some of the Canadian players will be used to his tendencies which could help find ways to beat him.
"He’s a very good goalie; he’s an elite goalie and he’s one of the best goalies in our league," Butler said. "It’s like any good goalie, you have to get lots of shots on him, you have get traffic in front of him and be around the net for rebounds."
As for the extra day’s rest, Butler doesn’t feel as though the Americans will have an advantage given that Canada will have a day off between their quarterfinal and semifinal game.
"If they were playing back-to-back days it would be a huge advantage (for USA)," he said.
For U.S.A. to win
The U.S. will need to stick with what has been working and let its top players create on the big ice. In addition to its top three scorers of van Riemsdyk, Wilson and Schroeder, the U.S. will need more secondary scoring from players such as Kyle Okposo, Mike Carman and Bill Sweatt. Okposo is the wild card of this group because when he’s on his game he can be one of the toughest forwards to defend against. While he has produced in this tournament, a lot more was expected from the soon-to-be New York Islander. If the Canadians get too concerned with the top three, Okposo could be the difference-maker for his team.
Unlike the Canadians, the U.S. has not received a lot of scoring from its back end, but it could be a case of a volcano waiting to erupt. The U.S. has great offensive-minded defencemen in Bobby Sanguinetti and Jonathon Blum and should these two start to click, it could help the Americans get to their first final since the 2004 tournament when they beat Canada to take their first gold.
Like his counterpart Mason, Smith will need to propel his team to victory. Smith has been one of the best goaltenders in the OHL the past two seasons and was the reason why the Plymouth Whalers traded Czech goaltender Michal Neuvirth to Windsor. Smith has the best save percentage in the OHL at 0.930 and is always hard to score against. If he plays this game the same way as he does in the OHL, chances are strong for an American victory.
Although the U.S. has the edge in days off, Butler thinks they could be at a disadvantage in an elimination game as Canada has already played with their backs against the wall.
"When you look at the United States, you have to realize now that it’s the first time that they’re going to play a sudden-death game," he said. "Up until now, games were important for the United States but if they lost they were still going to move on.
"You saw in Canada’s (quarterfinal) game against Finland they were a little tighter and a little uptight. Canada’s advantage is this is going to be their second sudden-death game whereas for the United States it will be their first."
Since the margin of error is so small, the United States will need to stay out of the box as Canada has relied on their power play. If the Americans can eliminate that aspect of Canada’s game, it could give them the advantage to move forward to the gold medal game.
"What people have to understand is when you get down to the top four countries in the world in any sport … the line of error is not very big and you saw that in the quarterfinals," Butler said. "The difference between winning and losing is pretty small and when you look at last year the difference between us and the United States was a seven shot shootout. If that was the National Hockey League there would have never been a shootout. You might still be playing today, who knows what would happen."
Next game: The winner will face the winner of the other semi-final between Russia and Sweden in the gold medal game while the loser will play for bronze.