BUFFALO -- On Sunday night, Canadian fans who had made the trip across the border counted down the seconds at Buffalo's HSBC Arena, their team safely headed to a semifinal showdown against its archrival. Slowly the chants grew louder and louder: "We want the USA! We want the USA!"
The Canadians' fervently wished-for showdown has seemed inevitable at these World Junior Hockey Championships just as it was at last year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and has been at many other major international competitions. On Monday night at 7:30 p.m Eastern time (NHL net, TSN, TSN.ca), it will happen again.
"This is definitely what you play for," said Canada's captain Ryan Ellis after his team's 4-1 victory against Switzerland in the quarterfinals on Sunday night. "Of course you have to look at the game right in front of you, but I'd be lying if I said we haven't thought about this game. You know the building's gonna rock. We have a lot of Canadian fans down here and [the U.S. is] the home team, so it should be huge."
The U.S. team stunned Canada last year, 6-5 in overtime, on its home ice in Saskatoon. The Canadians, who had won the previous five tournaments, have reached the gold-medal game nine straight times, but they're still hurting after last year's defeat. And the U.S. has been favored to win it all again, qualifying for a bye into the final four by taking its three preliminary-round games: 3-2 over Finland, a 6-1 rout of Slovakia, and a 4-0 shutout of Germany. Sweden also drew a bye into the semis by going undefeated.
After losing a tight 6-5 game to the Swedes on New Year's Eve, Canada needed to beat Switzerland to advance to the semis. The Canadians had won their two previous games very impressively, beating Russia, 6-3, and the Czech Republic, 7-2. They outshot Switzerland, 46-21, including 23-8 in the first period, yet actually started slowly, surrendering a bad goal just 69 seconds into the contest. Switzerland's Inti Pestoni tapped a wraparound off the pads of Canada's goaltender, Mark Visentin, when he failed to cover the short-side post. Visentin was shaky for a good part of the game. He juggled several long shots and skated over to his own bench during the second period as a delayed penalty was called against his own team. Several Swiss players noticed his mistake, but were unable to capitalize before Canada could capture the puck.
Lethargic, sloppy play will mean plenty of trouble against the U.S. Neither Visentin, nor Canada' other keeper, Olivier Roy, has played with distinction so far in Buffalo. Meanwhile, U.S. goalie Jack Campbell leads all netminders with a 1.03 goals-against average. Boston University forward Charlie Coyle, a 2010 first-round draft choice (28th overall) by the San Jose Sharks, leads Team USA in scoring with six points.
"They have a lot of quick players," Canada's coach Dave Cameron says of the U.S. "We have to use our size to our advantage, and we can't afford to make mistakes."
Team Canada will lean on center Brayden Schenn for leadership and experience. Unlike their other forwards, Schenn has played in the world juniors before and he leads all scorers in this year's tournament with seven goals and 14 points, 10 of them coming in two five-point outings. In a 10-1 preliminary round blowout of Norway, he joined Mario Lemieux and Simon Gagne as the only Canadians to score four goals in a world juniors match. Schenn is also plus-10 in just four games. His production certainly won't hurt his prospects with the L.A. Kings, for whom he played eight games earlier this season before being returned to the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL. Team brass in L.A. understandably has high hopes for the 19-year-old forward they drafted fifth overall in 2009.
In the other quarterfinal game on Sunday night, Russia came from two goals down late in the third period to stun Finland, 4-3 in overtime. With the Finns up 3-1, Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a power-play goal for the Russians with just 3:49 to play. He then set up Maxim Kitsyn's tying goal two minutes later, and the pair combined for some overtime magic to send the shocked Finns home.
On the winner, Kitsyn managed to elude two Finnish players along the sideboards before sliding a seeing-eye pass to Kuznetsov in open ice. The Capitals draft pick then beat Joni Ortio for the stunning game-winner 6:44 into the extra session. Kuznetsov, a skilled sniper, should be joining Alex Ovechkin in Washington before too long.