2011 World Junior Championships:Team Canada vs. Team USA—PREVIEW

January 3rd, 2011 No Comments

Anyone who watched last years World Junior Championships doesn’t need a reminder as to which nation won the tournament, especially if you are a Canadian.

Heading into the tournament Canada had won five straight gold medals (2005-2009), tying the mark they set in the mid-90’s (1993-1997).

For some, the World Juniors was becoming a bit of a bore. Canada had medaled 18 out the the previous 20 years, accumulating 12 golds, four silver medals and two bronze medals along the way.

The looming question for many, was Canada’s dominance at the WJC hindering interest from the other countries, or, more importantly, was Canada’s dominance hindering the interest from the United States?

Don’t get me wrong, Canada lost the gold medal to the United States in the 2004 edition of the WJC in Helsinki, Finland, but the win failed to spike interest from the U.S., which, in many people’s minds, as seems to be the case with the NHL, is the market everyone wants.

Canada would go on to win five gold medals in a row, comparatively, the United States would have to settle for just one measly bronze medal (2007), which all but crushed any momentum they had winning the gold over Canada in 2004.

For some reason, last year was different. U.S. fans seem to be much more involved in this years tournament and, if you listen to the word on the street, they are very confident (maybe over confident) that they are going to wipe the floor with Canada in this afternoon’s semi-final match.

Don’t let the attendance at this years tournament fool you—the United States is on-board and, unlike other years, they are cockier than ever, expecting nothing less than a repeat performance of last years tournament—a gold medal.

The U.S. finished their round robin with a 3-1-0 record. Their only blemish came in their match against the surprisingly tough Finland squad, who took the U.S. to overtime before succumbing to the States by a final score of 3-2.

The U.S. put up rather ordinary scores against Slovakia (6-1) and Germany (4-0) before once again playing a very close game against the Swiss, in which Switzerland appeared to score a late tying goal, only to have it waved off.

The game would end in a 2-1 victory for the United States, but to the hockey world, given the score of the game, it was as if the U.S. lost that game.

Comparatively, Canada handled it’s opponents with ease hammering Russia 6-3, the Czech Republic 7-2 and Norway 10-1. It wasn’t until Canada met Sweden that the wheels fell off, as Canada lost in a shoot-out to a tough Swedish squad by a final score of 6-5.

Heading into the tournament Canada’s pool was called the “pool of death”. This because of the strength Canada, Russia and Sweden, all three more than capable of pulling off a gold medal victory at this years tournament.

There were a number of factors that contributed to Canada’s loss—the questionable suspension of Zach Kassian, poor goaltending from Olivier Roy and a key injury to Jaden Schwartz, which hurt Canada’s offensive depth and the overall chemistry of the offense, which has seen plenty of line combinations and changes throughout the tournament.

Bottom line—Sweden was the better team that day, dominating the Canadians in many facets of the game and, as the score dictates, beating the Canadians in the shootout for a final score of 6-5.

Both the U.S. and Canada took different paths to get to today’s semi-final match, but in the end, it doesn’t matter how you advance, it’s how you eventually finish that will resinate in the history books.

When you look at the tournament scoring leaders you have to go down to the 15th slot before you find a single American—Charlie Coyle, who has two goals and six points through four games.

Injuries and uninspired play have contributed to a weak tournament from the likes of Jerry D’Amigo, Chris Kreider, Jeremy Morin, Kyle Palmieri and Nick Bjugstad—five forwards that were supposed to lead the United States back to the promised land.

Comparatively, Canada boasts the top two scoring leaders—forward Brayden Schenn (seven goals, 16 points through five games) and defenseman Ryan Ellis (two goals, nine points in five games).

Canadian forward Ryan Johansen also occupies the top ten with a total of two goals and eight points through five games, while forward Louis Leblanc (three goals, three assists) and defenseman Erik Gudbranson (three goals, two assists) have also had solid offensive tournaments for Canada.

Despite the United States lack of offensive output at the tournament, goaltender Jack Campbell continues to dominate, leading the tournament with a .957 save percentage and boasting a 1.03 goals-against average.

Campbell is making the big saves when he needs to and has covered up the United States lack of offense all tournament long. Outside of Benjamin Conz—who had two exceptional games against the U.S. and Canada—Campbell has been the best goaltender at the WJC. Without question, Campbell will be a huge factor in today’s tilt with Team Canada.

On the backend the U.S. has been solid, but nothing flashy—especially offensively. The U.S. will need to get more offense from their backend if they are to be successful against Canada, who will need to get a better performance from some key forwards themselves.

Despite the strong performances from Schenn and Ellis, Canada has had very few forwards step up.

Ryan Johansen had an excellent game against the Swiss on Sunday. Canada will need to see more of the same from Johansen if they are going to beat the U.S.

Quinton Howden (one goal, three assists), Cody Eakin (one goal, one assist), Brett Connolly (no goals, two assists) and Carter Ashton (no goals, two assists), have all been offensive disappointments for Canada—especially Connolly, who should be contributing much more offense.

When the tournament began the United States were heavy favorites to bring home another gold medal. While it remains to be seen if they can make good on the “experts” predictions, given their play one would hardly call the U.S. world-beaters.

Canada wanted this rematch against the United States, well, now they have it.

You only get so many chances to avenge your losses. This is Canada’s chance, but unless they get better performances from goaltender Mark Visentin (who looked nervous and sloppy against the Swiss) and the key forwards I mentioned, it will be another disappointing tournament for Canada.

I am not much for making predictions in these games, so let’s just state the obvious—this game is going to be a war, both in the crowd (where Canadians are expected to outnumber their neighbors from the South in the stands) and on the ice, where there is more than enough bad blood between the two sides to ignite a few tussles.

The keys to victory for the United States:

* Get to Canadian goaltender Mark Visentin early.
* Stay out of the penalty box (Canada has been lights-out on the power play hovering around a 50% success rate throughout the tournament).
* Don’t allow the crowd to get you too pumped up.
* Get more offense out of your defense.
* Key players will have to play huge, mainly Jerry D’Amigo, Chris Kreider, Jeremy Morin, Kyle Palmieri and Nick Bjugstad ***(if all are healthy).

The keys to victory for Canada:

* Support goaltender Mark Visentin—control rebounds, clear the crease.
* Get a better performance from Brett Connolly and have Brayden Schenn and Ryan Johansen dominate.
* Get traffic in front of U.S. goaltender Jack Campbell.
* Make good on your power play opportunities.
* Don’t allow the crowd to get you too pumped up.

If one of these teams manages to do all or most of these keys, they will taste victory, earning them a chance to repeat as gold medal winners, or start a new streak.

Buckle up folk’s, today’s match in gonna be a beauty!

Until next time,

Peace!

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