The titanic tilt between the two fiercest rivals in international men's hockey didn't disappoint.
Canada, after a fast start in its second game of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games, was pushed back onto its heels by the speedy Americans and poor goaltending in a 4-2 loss at the Wukesong Sports Centre on Saturday.
Here's what you need to know about the Canada-United States Group A preliminary-round game.
1. Cagey, physical veterans lose to speedy, cocky youth
Speed does more than thrill, it actually wins games outside of the NHL.
Case in point: Although American youth and relative inexperience led to sloppy play in their own zone off the opening faceoff, costing them an early goal by Canada's Mat Robinson, the U.S. quickly gained its footing and was able to work its preferred rush first, backcheck later game to rally to a 3-1 lead.
Repeatedly, the Americans sped past the Canadians to create scoring chances, frequently pushing the retreating Canadians back deep into their own zone. This pressure made life difficult for goalie Eddie Pasquale with all the east-west traffic in the slot blocking clean looks in front. Turns out it's hard to see when four to five of your teammates have collapsed down low into the slot, effectively causing more chaos than control.
Just as the Germans rushed their passes when faced with the physically intimidating Canadians (1-1) in the opener, against the Americans (2-0) it was the Canadians who were rushing their passes, but for a different reason: those zippy-quick Americans forced quick releases to minimize the turnover risk. As a result, after the Americans regained their composure, they outshot the Canadians 17-1 from the halfway point of the first to the halfway point of the second.
But the veteran Canadian side refused to fold and was able to adjust to make a game of it, and during one stretch of the second period controlled the play in the American zone for a good minute, cycling and generating several chances that were turned aside by American goalie Strauss Mann. But when it looked like a foolish elbowing penalty by captain Eric Staal was going to be a momentum killer, it became just the opposite when Corban Knight scored the short-hander to get Canada back within one.
Overall, though, the highly touted speed and cocky youth selected by American GM John Vanbiesbrouck worked its magic, replicating the approach the World Junior team has deployed with much success.
With an average age of 25.1, the 2022 American roster is the youngest it's sent to the Olympics since the 1994 team that went to Lillehammer.
For the Canadians, captained by 37-year-old NHL veteran Staal, who is closely followed by 36-year-olds Adam Cracknell and Daniel Winnik, the average age is 29.2. And that's with three 19-year-olds in Mason McTavish, Owen Power and Kent Johnson helping pull the average down. Of 25 players on the roster, 19 are 27 or older. At times against the Americans, you could see the difference.
Youth convincingly triumphed over experience.
2. Owen Power vs. Jake Sanderson
The first pick overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2021, Power, Canada's six-foot-six wonderboy on defence, continued his smooth and calm ways, but wasn't as dominant as he was against the Germans. Across from him on the other blue line was Ottawa Senators 2020 fifth-overall pick Jake Sanderson, also 19, who is slightly smaller (first time six-foot-two has been considered "smaller") and just as aggressive when joining the rush.
Sanderson started on the third pairing after clearing COVID-19 protocol and jetting to Beijing, arriving at 12:30 a.m. on the day before the game. He had to pass five consecutive COVID tests while waiting in Los Angeles for the green light.
But despite those challenges, Sanderson played 5:49 in the first period, 16:59 overall, compared to Power's 6:13/22:13. And he didn't hold back, letting his wild horses run free with several rushes and frequently jumping into the play.
Both of these players are touted as the best defenceman not in the NHL, but in this head-to-head matchup, the prospect battle belt goes to Sanderson, who was aggressive on the forecheck and a force to be reckoned with all game.
3. The Claude Julien effect
Head coach Claude Julien clearly noticed the spirited play of the bottom two lines while watching from the stands for the team's 5-1 win over Germany on Thursday, rewarding the third line of Ben Street-Eric O'Dell-Kent Johnson with the first shift of the game.
That loyalty to effort paid off with Canada's first goal, even though scored by the first line, came as the Americans scrambled with mismatched lines. Because the third line picked up where it left off against Germany, the Americans were pushed back and disorganized in their own zone. Once the Americans settled down, however, they turned the tables and brought their own speed and version of truculence, marginalizing the Canadian energy line for most of the rest of the game.
Whereas Jeremy Colliton held pretty true to the four line combinations while filling in as head coach against Germany, Julien messed with the mix a bit after Canada fell behind. The changes, combined with the momentum swing occurring just before the short-handed goal, resulted in Canada making a game of it.
4. Random bits of information you should know
In Pyeongchang in 2018, Canada earned bronze while Team USA finished seventh. ... The injury that Canadian coach Claude Julien suffered as a result of his fall during a team-building exercise in Switzerland before the tournament was a broken rib and a punctured lung, the latter of course preventing him from flying until Thursday. ... Referees were from Latvia and Sweden, the linesmen from the Czech Republic and Canada (Dustin McCrank, Haileybury, Ont.). ... Canada leads the Olympic series against the Americans, 12-4-3. ... Canada's next game is Sunday at 8:10 a.m. ET against China, while the U.S. faces Germany.
Descriptive scoring summary
1:24 Canada, Mat Robinson, shot from the far boards, through Mann's legs, soft goal, third goal by defencemen of six Canadian goals
2:34 USA, Andy Miele, backhander top shelf glove side, Pasquale cheating and not hugging the post
18:44 USA, Ben Meyers, broken play, clumsy shot from in tight through a crowd in front, Canada collapsing too deep
2:37 USA, Brendan Brisson, Pasquale mishandles puck behind the net, pass from Nick Shore as Pasquale scrambles back is fired into the empty net
14:13, Canada, Corban Knight, finishes 2-on-1 short-handed, inside post far side above Mann's lowered shoulder
6:13 USA, Kenny Agostino, squeezes through above arm and body after sloppy clearing-attempt giveaway by Canadian defenceman
— Hockey Canada (@HockeyCanada) February 12, 2022
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) February 12, 2022