UFA Ė Team USAís offense is firing on all cylinders after beating Slovakia 9-3 and the Czechs 7-0. So is its confidence heading into a World Junior semi-final showdown with archrival Canada.
Thatís not to say the Americans are overconfident, however. Coach Phil Housleyís group canít be unaware that theyíre the underdog in this scenario. They dropped a 2-1 decision to Canada in round-robin action, and historically, theyíve only won six out of 39 career meetings with the perennial gold medal favourites from north of the 49th parallel.
However, the last two times the United States won, the stakes couldnít have been higher. The Americans won the 2010 gold medal game (6-5 in OT) in Saskatoon and the 2004 final (4-3) in Helsinki. So while this team needs to stay in the present, at least thereís a not-too-distant legacy of success from which to draw inspiration.
Under the leadership of people like Team USA general manager Jim Johannson and director of player personnel Tim Taylor, USA Hockey has done a tremendous job of fostering young talent through its National Development Team Program.
Program graduates here in Ufa include captain Jake McCabe, prospective #1 overall NHL draft pick Seth Jones, key defenceman Jacob Trouba, and starting goalie John Gibson, to name just a few.
Itís inevitable that the volume of top-shelf players coming out of America will pay off internationally in the long term Ė and potentially in the short term too.
To win on Thursday, the Americans must stand up to Canadaís physical game while using their own speed, continue clicking with the power play as they have in their last two outings, stay out of the penalty box, contain Canadaís elite scorers from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to Jonathan Huberdeau, and get a superior performance out of Gibson in his head-to-head duel with Canadaís Malcolm Subban.
IIHF.com caught up with the Americans for their thoughts going forward after their quarter-final victory over the Czechs.
On his teamís overall mix: When you can get scoring [from the first line to the fourth line], the defence pitch in, and your goaltender is, in my opinion, the best in the tournament, you have the perfect formula for a gold medal team.
On his impressions of Ufa: I knew it was a brand-new rink, and that they have a KHL team here. But I donít know that much about KHL hockey. Especially for the Russia game, there was great energy in the building. Itís really fun when you have that. Generally you can tell the people are hockey fans. Theyíre here to see a good hockey game and [against Canada] hopefully we get them on our side, pop a few in early, and ride that momentum.
On the round-robin game against Canada: I thought we played a really good game against Canada. It was really close and the level of play was really high. We were right there. We just came up a little bit short because Subban played lights out. Weíve just got to put some pucks in the net.
On Canadaís team makeup: They have a lot of depth on their team. They have four lines that can really play, and they have a lot of diversity. They have a lot of skilled players and their defense corps is pretty deep. Weíve just got to do what we can to try to win the game.
On scoring five goals in his last two games: Coming down the stretch, heading into the semi-finals, itís a good time to get hot. In the first couple of games of the tournament, I wasnít putting the puck in the net. I was a little frustrated. But Iím happy that itís coming right now.
On John Gibson: Heís a really good goalie and itís fun to watch him play, jumping over here or there, making saves. To watch him play like that, itís awesome. In the locker room, heís just hanging out. Nothing bothers him.
On whether Canadaís addition of Boone Jenner and J-C Lipon will mean a more physical tilt: Iím not sure. They played pretty physical last game, and we just used our speed and dumped pucks in. Maybe they might bring a little more [physically], but weíre just going to play to our advantages.
On his feelings about the semi-final: Itís exciting. I was excited to play them the first time, and itís going to be even more exciting the second time in the semi-finals. Itís something you always dream about, playing USA-Canada. Hopefully we beat them this time.