BUFFALO -- With one rival dashed, Team Canada can now set its sights on another traditional foe at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
Canada thoroughly outplayed Team USA in the semifinals on Monday night, sacking their southern neighbors, 4-1, and avenging an overtime loss in the final of last year's championships in Saskatoon. With the victory, Canada earned a berth in its tenth straight world juniors final on Wednesday and will face the Russians, who defeated Sweden, 4-3, in a shootout in the other semi.
"It was exactly what we wanted to do," said Canada's captain Ryan Ellis. "We executed the game plan exactly the way coach wanted us to."
And don't look for Dave Cameron's boys to change anything on Wednesday. Canada's coach has said that in order for his team to win gold, his players need to turn these games into NHL-style contests, with plenty of chipping and dumping, and a strong forecheck that plays to the size advantage it has against virtually every team in the tournament, even those such as the U.S. and Russia, which may be a little bit quicker.
"When you get this deep into the tournament," Cameron said after Monday's win, "you need your team to deliver a certain style of play. If I could get a blueprint for that, I'd be a multi-millionaire. We ask for guys who can turn their skills over to the team and respond to the team concept . . . we need to get pucks in deep, cycle and take the legs out of the opposition. That how we get our own skills to go to work."
That strategy certainly worked on Monday for Canada, which outshot the U.S. each period, and 41-25 for the game. What's more, with the match played on the tighter confines of NHL-sized ice, Canada was able to clog the neutral zone and disrupt passing lanes. The Canadians also left the Americans banged and bruised. After one crunching check in center ice, Canada forward Marcus Foligno followed through by dumping U.S. forward Brock Nelson over the boards and onto the Canadian bench. The U.S. team had no sustained response to Canada's thunder.
"We didn't deserve to win this game," U.S. coach Keith Allain said with resignation. "You usually get what you deserve."
Though the game took place in Buffalo, the sea of red and white throughout most of the stands in HSBC Arena suggested a highly pro-Canada crowd that made the quick hop over the border. "The crowd was unbelievable," said Canada's goalie Mark Visentin, who made his second straight start in the tournament after Olivier Roy handled the preliminary games. "I couldn't hear myself talk. It even hurt my ears a bit. We'll be glad to have those people back on Wednesday. It's going to be the toughest game we've had. There are some things we need to clean up."
Canada opened the tournament with a 6-3 victory against Russia on Dec. 26 to begin preliminary-round play, dominating the contest while outshooting the Russians, 42-27. But the game was even, 3-3 after 40 minutes, thanks to some defensive breakdowns. "They're a fast team, a real fast transition team," said Canada forward Quinton Howden. "We can't afford to have turnovers, because they turn them into chances every time."
Four of Russia's skilled forwards -- Evgeni Kuznetsov, Vladimir Tarasenko, Maxim Kitsyn and Danil Sobchenko -- have combined for 30 points in their team's five tournament games to date. "We have to be prepared for their forecheck," says Canada forward Ryan Johansen. "They've got a lot of speed. We need to be physical with them. We need to be able to slow them down."
Ellis knows this Russian team has a style that's similar to Canada's and likes to cycle rather than circle, as the U.S. squad did. "They're a little more aggressive," he says. "They're going to be on the puck quicker. We have to be ready for that."
Russian coach Valeri Bragin is worried about the initial jump that Canada is likely to have, given the presence of so many of its fans. "The first few minutes are very important," Bragin said after his team's semifinal victory, knowing that his squad would face a North American foe in the final. "We will not be favored among fans, so we must have something -- a goal, a save, a big play -- to dissolve the energy. These are young players and our players must remember that it will be a long night, if we can sustain that first assault."