Tuesday January 5th, 2010

Team Canada takes on Team USA tonight at 7:30 pm (eastern) in Saskatoon for all the junior marbles. Here's how I see the game breaking down:

Team Canada Wins If:

* They manage the puck better than they did on New Year's Eve. That means eliminating the turnovers that ended up as solid scoring chances or in the back of the net. Normally sure-handed Ryan Ellis (Nashville) can't play any worse than he did in that game. Look for him to be a significant contributor in the final.

* They negate the American speed advantage. Winning face-offs and controlling the puck is critical, but that shouldn't be a problem. Canada's top four centers all have better winning percentages in the circle than the top American. When they don't have the puck, the Canadians need to muck up the middle of the ice and force the Americans to the edges. Making them skate farther to get to the goal buys the split second that Canadian defenders will need to eliminate a scoring chance.

* They adjust to the loss of Travis Hamonic. The big defender elevated his status among the Islanders' top prospects with a sensational tournament, but was lost for the final after sustaining a shoulder injury in the last minute of the Switzerland game. Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues likely will step in alongside Marco Scandello (Minnesota Wild) on the shutdown pair. That should be an easy adjustment -- the trick will be doling out minutes to Jared Cowen (Ottawa), whose slow feet make him vulnerable to the American attack, or to versatile forward Brandon McMillan. The Anaheim pick is more than capable of handling the duties, but his aggressive presence would be missed up front.

* They maintain their discipline. It's been a problem throughout the tournament, with captain Patrice Cormier (New Jersey) and forward Nazem Kadri (Toronto) in particular struggling to maintain their composure. An emotional game like this is going to see its share of infractions. The key is to make them count and not commit the retaliatory or selfish fouls that haunted them earlier in the tournament.

* Embrace the moment. This is Canada's chance to win a record-breaking sixth consecutive title. Pressure? Sure, but there's also the sense that this game is theirs for the taking. Take advantage of the last change, ride the emotions of the crowd and count on the hockey gods to smile their way. They usually do.

Team USA Wins If:

* They get secondary scoring. The Americans have been carried throughout the tournament by the top line. New York Rangers draft pick Derek Stepan leads the team with three goals and 12 points through six games. Wingers Jerry D'Amigo (Toronto) has five goals and 10 points, and Danny Kristo (Montreal) has five goals as well. Big games from Kyle Palmieri (Anaheim) and Jeremy Morin (Atlanta) could tilt the result.

* Get the superior goaltending performance. Jack Campbell wasn't bad in the round-robin loss, but he was beaten on all three of Canada's shootout attempts. Look for Phoenix Coyotes prospect Mike Lee, who was impressive in medal round wins over Finland and Sweden, to get the nod. He won't have to steal this one, but the ability to make the big save at the key moment may give him the slight edge over Canada's Jake Allen.

* Establish their forecheck early. The Canadians simply couldn't match the US foot speed in their first matchup. They'll adapt (expect them to abandon the 1-3-1 power play), but that shouldn't alter the American approach. Aggressively attacking the puck carrier will create the turnovers they need to make the most of their advantage.

* Control their emotions. The Americans played a smart, disciplined game against the Swedes in the semis, but the passions will run a little higher in this one. Staying out of the box is critical. They got a pair of shorties in the first matchup, but they won't be able to count on that kind of production this time.

* Eliminate Jordan Eberle. With so many of their top junior-aged scoring threats unavailable for service, Eberle has been Canada's only consistent game-breaking weapon. If they can keep him off the board, the Americans earn an offensive advantage.

PREDICTION: At this point, I think the Americans are confident and better-prepared, and their speed presents a mismatch for slower Canadian defense. Still, I've learned never to bet against Canada, especially on home ice.

Canada 4, USA 3

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