In a World Junior Championship that has seen its share of surprises, most probably expected the almost annual New Year’s Eve battle between the U.S. and Canada to come with plenty to play for. With each team coming into the showdown with a 3-0-0-0 record, the top seed in Group B is up for grabs at 3:30 p.m. ET on NHL Network.
With the way both these teams have played to date in this tournament and with how things have been shaking out in Group A, neither is probably overly concerned with seeding. That doesn’t change the fact that both desperately want to win this game. With no guarantee of meeting again, the urgency to get one over on a big rival is surely enticing. It also doesn’t hurt to send a message in this game in the event they do see each other again.
The emotions run so high in this series, but it has only been more recently where the rivalry grew some teeth. Historically, there wasn’t much of a rivalry because the U.S. didn’t have enough talent to compete. That changed in 2004 with USA beating Canada for gold and has been more of a roller coaster ever since.
That win in 2004 was the first real statement that the U.S. had arrived as a growing national power after years of dormancy. In the years since, the wins have still not come all that often for Team USA against Canada at the WJC. That’s something that gets lost in the general narrative of these two teams being such fierce rivals.
Despite the lopsided results for Canada, many of the games have been extremely tight and when the U.S. has won, it has often been in the biggest moments — like the gold medal game in 2010 or the semifinal in 2013.
The preliminary round, however, has been mostly a ghost town when it comes to U.S. victories over Canada. Last year, with the two teams meeting in the tournament’s opening game, Team USA earned its first preliminary-round victory over Canada since the 1999 WJC with a fairly dominating effort. That victory was only the third for Team USA in the preliminary round over Canada ever. As a result, the all-time head-to-head looks pretty thin for Team USA.
The Americans have met Canada 43 times at the World Juniors, making their northern neighbors their most frequent opponent at the tournament. Of all those games, Team USA has won eight. There are also three ties in there, meaning 32 of those meetings ended in a loss.
I’m not sharing the results to shatter the illusion of a rivalry, because in recent years, this game has been as intense as any you’ll see at any level. And they’ve often been especially entertaining, but the U.S. has really struggled when it comes to the New Year’s Eve showdown.
Since Team USA’s last NYE win, on Dec. 31, 1998, the two teams have met eight times on the last day of the year. One of those games ended in a tie, with all of the rest ending with a Canada victory.
Among the more memorable games (or forgettable if you’re in red, white and blue), was the “John Tavares Game” at the 2009 WJC in Ottawa, the incredible 5-4 game that ended in a shootout in 2010 and the highly energetic 5-3 win for a star-studded Canada squad in Montreal two years ago.
While I spent a lot of time on a history lesson, the past is essentially irrelevant to this U.S. team, or at least it should be. None of the players on this team have ever lost to Canada in a preliminary-round game in the World Juniors. As long as they don’t buy into the mystique of this series or that the lack of prior U.S. success has anything to do with them, they’re going to give themselves a better chance to win.
Aside from all the historical baggage this game comes with, the U.S. is going to be facing its toughest test yet. The Canadian team is deeper on paper and has been playing incredibly well to start the tournament. It’s going to take a pretty impressive effort to come away with the win.
While nothing matters more than how a team executes, emotions have played a far bigger role, historically in this series, than they probably should. That is part of what has made this game so fun over the years, though. There is an intensity to it that is often unmatched by any other game in the tournament. The team that manages the emotions best is usually the one that wins, usually because it means they’re executing better and they’re staying out of the box.
Here are some key things to know heading into the big tilt.
UPDATE 12:40 p.m. ET — Team USA’s lineup for today’s game via USA Hockey:
Some quick lineup thoughts
- Joe Woll is getting the start against Canada after making one prior appearance against Slovakia. I thought we’d see Parsons again after his excellent performance over Russia, but Team USA is working its tremendous goaltending depth here. More on this decision below.
- It appears Casey Fitzgerald is going to have a chance to play a bigger role in this game. He had his best performance of the tournament against Russia and if he can build on that, he gives the U.S. another reliable blueliner to throw out in any situation. While Charlie McAvoy and Caleb Jones are likely to get the biggest minutes, Fitzgerald has a bigger chance to make an impact in thise one.
- There were no changes to the forward lineup after the win over Russia. This has been a good mix as they’re a lot more balanced as a group this way.
1. USA continues improving with each game
The biggest cliché of the tournament for every coach is that success in the tournament is all about “getting better every day.” As tired as you might get of hearing it, it is absolutely true.
As a team goes through a tournament, they get more familiar with each other, coaches know them better and start to trust certain players more. Things are supposed to start flowing better. If the team was built right and the players buy in, that usually comes naturally.
To me, that is one of USA’s biggest assets heading into the game against Canada. They set the bar pretty low early on in their game against Latvia, but improved with each period. Then they were a lot better against Slovakia, then they had their best game by a country mile against Russia.
If they play like they did against Russia, with some improved special teams play, they’re going to give themselves a chance to win. Even if they stumble or don’t get the result they want, they have the quarterfinal to correct things and move on.
2. Goaltending could be the biggest difference between these two clubs
Looking at both the rosters, Canada certainly has the edge at forward and on defense. Where the U.S. has a noticeable advantage is in net.
Tyler Parsons has been strong in two starts so far. He was absolutely brilliant late against Russia, making some key saves on the penalty kill and dealing with a pretty desperate attack. If he does indeed get the net against Canada, as he is expected to, it’s going to be a heck of a challenge, but he’s been everything the U.S. has needed so far. Having had the experience of playing in a tense Memorial Cup final last season, this should be a situation he relishes.
Update: Joe Woll will start for Team USA. While Parsons looked like he had earned the No. 1 job, I have no problem with the U.S. putting Woll in a pressure situation here. The fact is, USA has three goalies on their roster who are good enough to start for them. The thing I like about Woll in this particular game is how steady and calm he is between the pipes. A more technically-sound goalie, he keeps the game simple. He had a solid start against Slovakia and has been tremendous between the pipes for Boston College this season. It will be interesting to see how the Maple Leafs prospect responds to such a big moment like this.
Carter Hart has had some shaky moments in games against Russia and Latvia and Connor Ingram faced just six shots in his only start of the tournament so far. It’s tough for Canada to make a decision based on the information available to them, but it’s an important one with how consistently the U.S. has been able to score in this tournament to date.
Update 2: Connor Ingram has been tabbed as Canada’s starter for this afternoon.
3. Special teams loom large
One of the few areas the U.S. hasn’t been as sharp at has been special teams. The good news is that they’re the second least-penalized team in the tournament so far. Meanwhile, they’ve scored three goals on 13 advantages so far.
Canada, however, has been a special teams force so far. They have the tournament’s top power play with eight goals on 14 advantages (57.14 percent). On the PK, they’ve allowed just one goal on 13 disadvantages.
In a game where emotions tend to run hot, there are often penalties. Limiting the unnecessary ones is going to be a huge key for the U.S. as Canada’s power play is absolutely humming right now. It was something the Americans did extremely well against Russia and it has to continue if they want to end the preliminary round in first place.
4. Stray thoughts
- USA’s scoring depth is going to be more important in this game than any other. Canada is going to spend a lot of time trying to shut down Clayton Keller and Colin White. If they succeed, there’s more pressure on guys like Luke Kunin, Jeremy Bracco, Tage Thompson and others to produce.
- Team USA was able to establish a great forecheck against Russia and really didn’t let them do the same. Canada is going to provide a much greater challenge in that department. The first few minutes of the game will be key in establishing how effective the U.S. defensemen will be at absorbing the forecheck and making plays under duress.
- On the other side, it is going to be a lot harder for the U.S. forwards to beat Canadian defensemen to pucks on the forecheck. Team USA effectively used dump-ins against Russia and won a lot of footraces. If they can do that against Canada, their chances of winning go way up. If they can’t, it’s going to be a lot harder to establish possession and get sustained pressure. This is going to be one of the more intriguing things to watch in the game.
We’ll have a recap after the game.