Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Kerrzy’s Notebook: Canada/USA Preview

For the ninth straight year, Team Canada will play for all the marbles tonight at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships as they shoot for a sixth straight gold medal.

After beating Russia for the top prize in three straight years and the Swedes in the next two, Canada will play the United States in the finals for the first time since a freak goal handed the Americans their first ever WJHC gold back in 2004.

In that game, Canada squandered a 3-1 lead and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury shot a puck off of one of his defenceman for the game-winner in a 4-3 loss. I remember that one well, because I had skipped class to watch it at the Powerplant along with many of my fellow students.

That’s all in the past now, though, so let's take a look at this year’s match up:

Road to the Finals

Team Canada opened up the tournament with a 16-0 rout of Latvia, followed by a 6-0 shutout of Switzerland and an 8-2 romp over Slovakia.

Their first real challenge came on New Years Eve in a 5-4 come from behind win over the United States. Canada erased a 4-2 deficit in the final 10 minutes of the game and went on to win in a shootout, earning a bye to the semifinals.

In the semis, Canada beat Switzerland 6-1 after the Swiss pulled off a major upset in the quarterfinals, bouncing Russia from the tournament.

Team USA had a pretty similar first three games to their Canadian counterparts, beating Slovakia 7-3, narrowly defeating Switzerland 3-0 and pumping Latvia 12-1, before losing to Canada.

In the quarterfinals, Jerry D’Amigo scored twice as the States beat Finland 6-2 and he scored another couple in a 5-2 semifinal win over Sweden.

Tale of the Tape (Canada)

This year’s version of Team Canada boasts almost a full roster of players that can put the puck in the net, led by Edmonton Oilers prospect Jordan Eberle who is second in tournament scoring, alongside St. Louis prospect Alex Pietrangelo, with 11 points in five games.

Behind Eberle in goal scoring for Canada is potential number one pick Taylor Hall who has five goals and nine points for Canada. Up and down the roster, they’ve got a lot of firepower.

On the blue line, Canada once again has a fairly strong group of defensemen, although the expected offensive production hasn’t been there across the board. That said, Pietrangelo leads all d-men with 11 points and Ryan Ellis is second with seven. Ellis has yet to really showcase what he can do offensively, though. The Canadians will be down a man as Travis Hamonic will sit out with a shoulder injury he sustained after a dirty hit in the final minute of that semifinal win over Switzerland. Calvin de Haan will be back though, after suffering a concussion.

As a team, Canada has given up the fewest goals (7) and fewest shots (101) of any team in the tournament, and Canada’s power play and penalty kill rank higher than that of the Americans.

In goal, Jake Allen is the man for Canada with a 4-0 record, a .932 save percentage, a 1.22 GAA and two shutouts so far.

Tale of the Tape (USA)

In their New Years Eve clash with Team Canada the US proved that they’re pretty evenly matched with their border mates, building up a 4-2 lead before blowing it in the final ten minutes.

The Americans boast a big, fast group of forwards that gave Canada quite a bit of trouble in their last meeting. Derek Stepan leads the tournament in scoring with three goals and 12 points in six games and Jerry D’Amigo is two points back with five goals and 10 points, including back-to-back two-goal performances. Jordan Schroeder is another key piece for Team USA, a veteran playmaker who now leads his country in all-time scoring at the tournament with 26 points.

On the blue line the Americans have been an aggressive bunch, while giving up the third fewest goals in the tournament (13 in six games). They’ve received some timely production from defensemen in the clutch, including John Carlson’s game winner in the semifinals against Sweden. The US blue line boasts five players with at least a plus six rating, including Matt Donovan who has three goals.

The one big question mark for Team USA is between the pipes – Jack Campbell was in net in the loss to Canada, but Mike Lee took over after that and is 4-0 with a 2.00 GAA and a .928 save percentage. He’ll likely get the start, but as of Monday USA head coach Dean Blais wouldn’t say anything.

What to Expect

Whatever happens, this will be a hard-fought game between two bitter rivals that could very well go down to the wire.

If the last few meetings between Canada and the US have taught us anything, it’s that no lead is safe and that we should really be prepared to see just about anything once the puck drops.

Team Canada started slow against the Swiss in the semifinals, which can probably be blamed on the fact that they weren’t really playing a top team. That motivation to get a quick start won’t be a problem against the US. In their last meeting, Canada gave the puck away far too often, which will be their undoing if it starts happening again.

The US could have given up after what could have been seen as a demoralizing loss to Canada on New Years Eve, but they didn’t. Instead, they beat two quality teams in Finland and Sweden (who had played in the last two finals), which shows a lot of character.

Look for them to come out swinging, hoping to get the Canadian defenders off their game early on.

I think this one could come down to special teams, where Canada’s power play is an impressive 14-for-37, while the States have scored just eight times on 28 opportunities.

Final Thoughts

The past few World Juniors have been full of moments that brought a nation to its feet – Jordan Eberle’s last-second goal against the Russians last year and the shootout winner to send Canada to the finals; Matt Halischuk’s OT-winner in the final against Sweden the year before; the shootout heroics of Jonathan Toews in 2007.

This year’s first Canada/USA tilt (okay, okay, it was technically last year) was already labeled an instant classic; wouldn’t it be great if tonight’s game is even more exciting?

Oh yeah: Let’s go Canada!!!!!

PS – I’m going to try a live-blog during tonight’s game. Stay tuned!

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