U18WC: USA-Canada Semifinal Preview

2011 IIHF World Under-18 Championship Semifinal
USA vs. Canada — 6:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. EDT) — LIVE on FASTHockey.com

Funny how these things always seem to work out. The U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team will play Canada in the 2011 IIHF World Under-18 Championship semifinals. USA-Canada in a hockey game with enormous stakes? Would you have it any other way? I wouldn’t.

Get the full preview after the jump.

When it comes to the Under-18s, the U.S. has been the top dog for some time. This is an event Canada always has a talented team, but doesn’t always have the success. So it’s almost like a bit of role reversal. In the WJC, it’s always Canada as the favorite, while at the Under-18s, it’s hard to pick against the USA.

It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? 

Last year, Canada brought a team that included talents like Brett Connelly, John McFarland and Erik Gudbranson and finished seventh. This year, with Ryan Murphy, Ryan Murray and Mark McNeill, Canada has a shot to go to the gold-medal game. You just never know with this group.

One thing you can almost always bank on is an intense, physical game that should remain pretty close. There’s no love lost between the opponents, but it’s going to be the team that manages its emotions best that should be able to come out on top.

When you look at the two teams, they look very similar. Each has good speed, a few high-end skill guys, good puck-moving defenseman and neither team is overwhelmingly big.

The style of game is similar, too. The only sizeable advantage I see goes to the U.S. in the goaltending department. John Gibson is the top-rated goalie in North America for the NHL Draft and has been outstanding for the U.S. Malcolm Subban isn’t draft-eligible until 2012, but gives a lot away to Gibson in size and technique.

Other than that, I think it’s pretty evenly matched, though I do like Team USA’s top scoring unit better than any of the trios Canada will be sending out Saturday night.

The one thing that you can almost never predict is the passion coming out of the players. Which team is going to play with the most fire? Which team will be the smartest? What player is going to break out? There are so many factors when you think about USA vs. Canada.

The only thing we can really look at is the measurables… so let’s do that.

Special teams should prove vastly important in this game as the opportunities at five-on-five should be few and far between.

The U.S. has the top penalty-killing unit in the whole tournament, killing 86.6% of it’s penalties so far. Canada has the second-ranked power-play, operating at a 34.6% success rate. So that will be a match-up to watch.

Team USA’s power play isn’t too shabby either, with a 32% success rate, which ranks fourth in the tournament. Canada’s PK has been solid as well, halting 81% of its opponents power plays. Canada is the second most penalized team in the tournament, so there should be some chances for the U.S. there.

The U.S. has had the best goaltending in the tournament statistically, with a team goals-against average of 2.00, and a save percentage of .934. Canada is third in that department with 2.20 GAA and .926 save percentage.

Both teams have scored 21 goals in the tournament (tied for second overall), though the U.S. has played one less game. The U.S. has allowed just eight goals against (tied with Sweden for the tournament low), while Canada has given up 11 (again, the U.S. has played one less game, so take that for what it’s worth).

Previous Matchups:

The U.S. has met Canada three times, previously in the World U18 Championship semis. The U.S. has won the last two tilts, in 2009 and 2007, while Canada won in 2003.

Ron Rolston has coached against Canada in two semifinals (2007, 2009) and one gold-medal game (2005) and has yet to lose.

Canada defeated the U.S., 2-1, in a pre-tournament exhibition that I wasn’t over here for. By all accounts it was your typical, sloppy “we just got here” game for both teams and might not be indicative of anything too specific.

At the 2010 World Under-17 Challenge, many of these players skated against not one, but four Canadian teams that included several of the players on this current Canadian roster. Team USA went undefeated in that tournament en route to the title (with a 2-1 win over a Ryan Murphy-led Team Ontario). We’re a long way away from that event, but the players on this U.S. roster have had success against Canadian teams before.

Key Players:

Team Canada has a bevy of talented players to go to, but none is more important to this club than Ryan Murphy. The Kitchener d-man has proven many doubters wrong and has looked like a first-round talent pretty much all year. He leads Canada with eight points (3-5) and is tied for the tournament lead among defensemen.

I don’t think there’s a doubt that he is the most skilled player on this roster. He’s a threat offensively, but has been exposed a few times on ill-advised rushes up the ice.

Murphy is able to take a few chances because he’s seen a lot of ice time with 2012-eligible Ryan Murray. The solid defenseman out of Everett was on the team last year as an under-ager and I thought he was Canada’s best defenseman (on a team that included 2010 third-overall pick Erik Gudbranson).

Murray is the captain for this club and plays a steady, smart game. He’ll see a ton of ice for this Canadian team and will likely go against Team USA’s top scoring lines a lot. While he’s solid defensively, Murray can add some offense when needed, but he’ll often defer to Murphy to take the offensive reigns from the blue line.

Goaltender Malcolm Subban (yes, P.K.’s younger brother) will be a big key to whether or not this Canadian team can win. He looked awful shaky in Canada’s 4-3 edging of Germany. There were rebounds a plenty and a good portion of net to shoot at. Still, he’s athletic and competitive enough to be able to make the key saves and stop second-shot chances. Team USA will have to really put the pressure on this guy early.

Up front, it’s been Mark Scheifele providing much of the offensive output. He leads Canada with five goals, and is third on the team with six points. Nick Cousins has four goals and potted the game-winner against Germany on the power-play last night.


Focusing on the U.S.

Team USA has been arguably the best team in this tournament in a lot of different ways. Escaping the Switzerland game with a 2-1 victory was basically Team USA’s only real stumble. Other than that, it’s been pretty smooth sailing.

The U.S. squad has gotten big production out of its top scoring unit of Rocco Grimaldi, Reid Boucher and J.T. Miller. The trio has combined for 22 points, with Miller leading the way with eight (3g-5a). Boucher has been the go-to scorer for the U.S. with five goals, including at least one tally in each game.

Should this line continue it’s pace, or if Grimaldi has his big breakout game as I think we may see, the U.S. should be able to walk out with a win. If this line struggles to take advantage of it’s opportunities, it’s going to hurt.

The U.S. has gotten such smart play out of its defensemen, especially Robbie Russo, Seth Jones and Connor Murphy. The steadiness on the back-end does a lot for Team USA’s game. It also takes some of the pressure off of John Gibson.

Defenseman like Mike Paliotta, Jake McCabe, Jacob Trouba and Barret Kaib have all played well too in a variety of situations. The versatility on the blue line should be a big advantage for the U.S. as it appears they might have a little more flexibility in the way they play the seven reargaurds.

As has been the case in each of the last several years for Team USA, goaltending should be the strength of this club.

John Gibson has been the best goaltender at the tournament, statistically. He’s played his normal game, which is exactly what you want to see against Canada. That calm-under-pressure and technically sound play we’ve come to expect out of Gibson is a big reason many feel he can be a big game goalie. He was between the pipes for Team USA’s 2-1 win against Ontario at the World U17 Challenge in 2010 and was a big reason for that victory. He’ll need a similar effort against Canada Saturday.

There is one player in particular that I feel will be the one to watch. That player is Tyler Biggs. He hasn’t had his best few weeks, but when he’s got his best game, it’s exactly the style you want to see against Canada. I think this kid lives for games like these. He’s a leader on this U.S. team and the way he plays could give his team a big boost against a Canadian club that’s going to give all they’ve got. Biggs was a force at the World U17 Challenge, particularly in the games against the Canadian teams. I don’t know if he has a little extra charge when taking on the “Leaf”, but he steps it up in games like these. I expect his best performance yet at the World U18s Saturday night. If he plays a hard-nosed, but smart (emphasis on the smart) hockey game, it’d help the U.S. set the tone of the game.

Needles to say, the U.S. is going to have manage its emotions. I’m sure they’ll be jacked to play, but it’s always important to remember the stakes of the game as opposed to focusing on the opponent. The chance to play for gold is on the line here. Sure, beating Canada would be fun, but it’s not about that at this stage of the tournament. It’s simply about getting the win and moving on. If the U.S. can remember that and play the game they’re capable of playing, I like their chances.

Keys to victory against Canada:

– Take advantage of second-chance shots off of rebounds… they’ll be there.

– Manage emotions and keep things simple.

– Get off to a good start and set the pace of the game early.

The only place you’ll be able to watch the game in the U.S. is on FASTHockey.com. If you haven’t checked out our previous broadcasts, I hope you’ll tune in for this one at 12:30 p.m. EDT. The game should be entertaining, and I hope to help enhance the experience to the best of my abilities. Though, with Canada and USA going at it for the right to play for gold, I don’t think I’ll have to do too much.

I can’t wait to call the game and I hope all of you back home are excited to take it in! Of course, I’ll have a recap up as soon as I can after the game.

FYI, the Sunday Schedule is like this:

Bronze-medal Game – 2:30 p.m. (8:30 a.m. EDT)
Gold-medal Game – 6:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. EDT)

Both will be on FASTHockey.com.


About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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