January 03, 2011
There are different levels of commitment when it comes to U.S.-based puckheads following the World Junior Championship.
There are the diehards who can tell you who Sweden's backup goaltender is (Fredrik Petersson Wentzel ... duh). There are NHL-first fans who will follow the tournament to get a glimpse of the future and the occasional rivalry game (guilty). And then there are the rest of the fans who don't exactly know what a World Junior is but know that USA vs. Canada in a hockey competition means they're cracking open a brew and making jingoistic comments at their friends on Facebook and Twitter like it was an unofficial national pastime.
(FYI: We'll have a live chat for the game this evening on Puck Daddy and Buzzing The Net.)
Simply put: It's like a holiday from having to answer for your vitriol.
We're all flag-waving tonight, just like we were in the Olympics and just like we do whenever these hockey nations meet. Some are repulsed by this homerism and the tone that comes with it. Others understand that it's one night to crack wise about the other nation's stereotypes and to cheer for players that (let's face it) the majority of us wouldn't know if they walked up and speared us in the how-do-you-do ... all for a game that doesn't carry 1/100th the bragging rights that, say, the gold medal game in the Olympics does.
So embrace it. Lambert has, turning his Twitter feed into a snark-filled pro-U.S. rant and running the hilarious Sleeping Giant blog that's covering the U.S. at the WJC.
It's been nearly a year since Jack Campbell(notes) backstopped the U.S. and John Carlson(notes) scored the game-winner to give the U.S. the gold in World Juniors. The anticipation for this game is off the charts for loyalists on both sides, with "We Want USA" chants in the HSBC Arena in Buffalo and #WeWantUSA becoming a trending topic on Twtter after Canada beat the Swiss.
Canada forward Casey Cizikas(notes), asked if there a bit of "hate" in the locker room: "There's that rivalry that's always been there between the countries. There definitely is a bit (of hate) but you can't let that get out and overtake your game."
Coming up, a look at how the teams match up and what people are saying about this border war tonight.
Canada will be looking to enact some measure of revenge against the U.S. on Monday before what is sure to be a boisterous and energetic crowd at HSBC Arena. The U.S., of course, snapped Canada's five-year reign as WJC champions last year following a 6-5 overtime victory in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
"I certainly have pictured what the atmosphere might be like," U.S. coach Keith Allain said. "It would be something similar to the end of a game if we were to win the gold medal. That's part of our driving motivation and it's going to be a pretty special moment."
"You don't really need to do anything to get jacked up for that," Canada defenseman Erik Gudbranson(notes) said. "We're really excited and it's a good opportunity for us. The U.S. is a very good team and we're going to have to prepare well, but it all starts with resting up now and then doing what we can to prepare."
These two teams have seemed destined to meet in the medal round from the beginning. The stakes are maybe a little lower with this only being a semifinal game, but by this point, I think bragging rights may be worth more than a piece of hardware. This may be the most intense, most compelling rivalry in all of sports right now.
All the pluses and minuses for each team can be totaled up on paper, but this is likely to be another close game--I'd be surprised if this game is settled after 60 minutes--that is going to come down to which player can make a big play at the right time. Sports doesn't get any better than that. In the end, we'll see who gets what they wanted.
Neate Sager of Y! Sports' Buzzing The Net had this take:
Sunday offered some healing after the Swedish setback. Against a Swiss team that can render the passing and shooting lanes more clogged than Niagara border crossings, Canada just worked away. They generated 50 shots on goal against a team that also played Team USA tough, losing 2-1 in the round-robin.
"We overcame that fairly well," forward Zack Kassian(notes) said of cracking the Swiss defence. "We got the puck down low. The U.S. is very fast, really skilled. Whoever comes with the best game plan will win."
Well, that and taking the initiative early. You could count on one hand how many glass-shaking, chiclet-ratting bodychecks Canada threw early on against the speedy Swiss. That contributed to one of the quietest Canadian crowds at a North America-based world junior in recent memory.
"I think one of the advantages we have is size - that's only an advantage if we use it," Cameron said afterward. "There's a couple of teams in this tournament that are quicker than us, so we don't want to get into a run-and-gun."
Head coach Dean Blais credited a successful effort to "play Canadian hockey" for that win, and this year Keith Allain has guided the U.S. in much the same way. Talented forwards like Maple Leafs prospect Jerry D'Amigo(notes), Chris Kreider, Ryan Bourque and Nick Bjugstad give the U.S. lots of firepower, and the blueline looks rock solid.
The Americans were only really tested in their tournament opener against Finland, and Bjugstad won that one in overtime.
Canada, meanwhile, has survived a suspension to Zack Kassian, who returned for the Swiss game, as well as a tournament-ending injury to Jaden Schwartz to get to the semifinal. The goaltending has been sloppy, and while Mark Visentin(notes) allowed only one goal against Switzerland after replacing No. 1 netminder Olivier Roy after the Sweden game, that goal was an early, ugly one. "I've watched the world juniors religiously over the years," smiled Visentin, who was named the starter for the U.S. game. "I've always pictured myself making the big save at the end."
Bob McKenzie of TSN gives Team USA an advantage in goal and on the power play:
The Americans have a dangerous power play. It's a little bit different. Instead of quarterbacking it from up high on the blue line, they like to quarterback it from down low near the goal line; that's where the distribution comes from.
Keep in mind, though, the quality of opponents that the Americans saw in the preliminary round is probably not as strong as what Canada faced, but that U.S. power play has the ability to be lethal.
For all the hype for this game, The Cheap Seats isn't sure this tournament can be salvaged:
This year's tournament is seriously lacking in star power. While Canada's Brayden Schenn(notes) is setting the tournament on fire, he's hardly the next Sidney Crosby(notes). Jaden Schwartz, perhaps the most exciting Canuck, is out for the tournament with a fractured ankle.
Team U.S.A., meanwhile, boasts some highly-talented players, but please name me one who stands above the others. The Russians have no more than six players who'll ever hope to play in the NHL. The Swedes have some solid prospects, but I don't see a Peter Forsberg in the bunch. Actually, one of their most prized prospects, Gabriel Landeskog, is injured and will not play again in the tournament. Their other top prospect is defenceman Adam Larsson, whose stock is dropping each time he steps on the ice.
The tournament, thus far, has been marred by injuries, suspensions, bad goaltending, and blowouts. Now it's up to a Canada-U.S.A. semi-final - not gold medal - game to inject some life into the WJC.
It could be greatest game ever played on frozen ice, and I'm still not sure it could save this tournament.
In contrast to the previous post, Hockey Mom in Canada goes big picture with a post about why World Juniors are a special time:
What is it about the World Junior Championships has us so enthralled? Yes, it's another chance to become patriotic and support our Canadian teams in "our game". Yes, it's that Canada has found a lot of success at these tournaments (and some severe disappointment as well). But it's more than that. I do think that the timing of this tournament adds to the intrigue. I watch most of the games each year with family (Boxing Day), friends (New Year's Eve), and whoever we can rally together for the rest of the tournament. Since the schedule depends on where in the world the tournament is taking place, I've gotten up in the middle of the night to tune in, or huddled around a TV in the lunch room at work to watch just five more minutes.
I think that the World Junior Championships is also a chance to get a glimpse into the future. Watching these young men on the ice, we are also getting a chance to see our upcoming stars and heroes, and to truly appreciate the skill that they possess. I still recall watching a young Crosby, just a few years back, and though I wasn't that old, I still recall the brawl against the Soviet Union back in 1987 featuring players like Theo Fleury(notes) and Brendan Shanahan(notes) (arguably Canada's worst, or Canada's most entertaining moment in junior hockey). Regardless, while most of the players each year would be known to those who follow junior hockey, for others it's the first chance we get to see them play with their team mates from across the country.
Finally, a bit of patriotic fervor from The United State of Hockey blog:
Lastly, I figure most of my readers are American... and I am American. This is one of those days where objectivity kind of gets flung out the window. I know a lot of you out there won't have any trouble getting revved up for this game. Still, I feel that, as an American, it is my civic duty to offer you this bit of motivation and even some words of wisdom from a REAL AMERICAN. Watch this video. Start to finish. Thank me, then go get the American Flag tattooed across your chest. It's a great day for hockey, everyone!
Waiting for the Canadian hockey blog response with Bret Hart's theme music in 3 ... 2 ...