Something to prove

Both Canada and USA have much at stake in gold medal game

Credit Union Centre Saskatoon Saskatchewan Canada

Does the U.S. have what it takes to steal gold on Canadian ice? Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images

SASKATOON – Here's a statistic that Team USA coach Dean Blais will want to improve on Tuesday: in two previous World Junior gold medal games, the Americans have put a grand total of three pucks into Canada's net.

They were shut out 2-0 in Switzerland in 1997 as Boyd Devereaux scored the game-winner for Canada.

And in 2004, when the Americans beat Canada 4-3 for their lone title, the winning goal was credited to Patrick O'Sullivan, but the future NHL forward didn't put the puck in the net. That (unfortunate) distinction went to Canadian goalie Marc-Andre Fleury whose failed clearing attempt bounced off his own defenceman, Braydon Coburn, and over the goal line.

The American victory that year was hailed as validation for the USA's National Team Development Program (NTDP). It centralizes top U18 Americans on one team out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has spawned 166 NHL-drafted players (including 33 first-round picks) since its 1996 debut.

But we're not concerned with providing NHL talent here. Our focus is World Junior gold, and we're still only talking about one World Junior title for the world's most prosperous and influential nation. Decided by a late, fluky goal.

It all points to a key difference when you consider what's at stake for these North American rivals at Saskatoon's Credit Union Centre on Tuesday.

Canada wants to prove it's the undisputed top junior hockey nation on earth by surpassing its own record of five straight gold medals (1993-97, 2005-09) in its ninth straight finals appearance.

The Americans merely want to prove that they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Canada by getting their second gold ever.

There would be no better way to do that than beating the red Maple Leaf on its own ice.

But these American players are so young that even the oldest (19-year-old defenceman John Carlson, who tallied the winner against Sweden in the semis) would be hard-pressed to remember the historic 1996 World Cup of Hockey final, where the Americans prevailed with two 5-2 victories in Montreal.

If the Americans win, they'll attract a modicum of US media attention. Lose, and it won't be noticed at all, except among hardcore hockey fans. In Canada, Willie Desjardins' crew is expected to win, and if they don't, a blanket of gloom will settle over the nation, which would only be alleviated by Olympic gold in Vancouver next month.

Somehow, the young Canadians manage to either block out or feed off that pressure when they need to.

Even though 2010 American offensive stars like Derek Stepan (12 points) and Jerry D'Amigo (10 points) are right up there with Canadian go-to guys like Jordan Eberle (11 points) and Taylor Hall (nine points), they'll have to demonstrate that they want victory more than Canada does. It wasn't a case they made convincingly in either of the last two New Year's Eve round-robin classics, blowing a 3-0 lead on December 31, 2008 in Ottawa and, in this year's tournament, squandering the 4-2 edge they held with 10 minutes left.

Additionally, since the IIHF instituted the playoff system at the World Juniors in 1996, the Americans have not fared well against Canada when a medal (apart from '04) or elimination is on the line. They've lost two quarter-finals (2001, 2003), two semi-finals (2007, 2008), and even a bronze medal game (2000) – which is usually the best time to catch a Canadian team napping.

Brian Burke, GM of the 2010 American Olympic squad, recently told reporters that not one cent would be bet in Las Vegas on his young Vancouver squad. The American juniors are a tough bet, too. They enter Tuesday's gold medal game with a 50/50 chance on paper, but lower odds in actuality.

Because this isn't just about history and Canada's passionate devotion to a sport whose popularity lags behind baseball, basketball, and football in the United States.

The hard reality is that this year, Canada tops the Americans in almost every major statistical category heading into the final: goals for, goals against, power play, penalty killing, goaltending. Even with all the talk of how Canada needs to watch its discipline (Nazem Kadri, Stefan Della-Rovere, and Patrice Cormier, we're looking at you), the Canadians have recorded just 58 PIM to the USA's 84. Only in shorthanded goals (three apiece) are the two teams equal.

So unless you're a committed Canadian supporter, wish this young, fast, skilled Team USA good luck. Because they're probably going to need it.

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