North Americans too close to call
by Lucas Aykroyd|04 JUN 2021
After the U.S. beat Canada 5-1 in the group stage, fans are eager to witness an exciting semi-final rematch at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Hockey is a game of “What have you done for me lately?” Therefore, even though Team Canada’s playoff hopes hinged on the outcome of the Germany-Latvia group finale as recently as Tuesday, that hair’s-breadth escape now seems like ancient history.

And the Canadians, after eliminating the powerful ROC team 2-1 in overtime, have plenty of reasons to believe they can carry that momentum into Saturday’s semi-final showdown with the Americans – and beyond.

Andrew Mangiapane, whose sudden-death winner ousted coach Valeri Bragin’s team, spoke about how Canada has rebounded from an unprecedented three-game losing streak to start these Worlds: “Just keep playing our game. We were not happy with our start at all. To build off Game Four and keep building every game, we’re trending in the right direction. It’s awesome to see from our guys. Keep playing hard, playing the full 60 every game, and good things will happen for us.”

“Good things” seems like an understatement when you rewatch the video of Troy Stecher’s miraculous stickhandling to outwit the ROC defence and feed the puck back to Mangiapane for the decisive goal. That is a highlight that will be replayed on TSN for years to come – especially if coach Gerard Gallant and his men win the gold medal in Riga to end a five-year championship drought.

Yet to keep things in perspective, Canada has won the Worlds seven times just in the era with NHL participation, which dates back to 1977. The U.S. has not won a World Championship tournament since 1933. Even factoring in Canada’s extraordinary pride as hockey’s founding nation, the Americans have more to gain with a victory on Saturday. Never mind cross-border bragging rights. The U.S., with five bronze medals since 1996, has not even played in a gold medal game since the IIHF instituted the playoff system in 1992.

U.S. goalie Cal Petersen, who leads all starting netminders with his 1.01 GAA and 96.0 save percentage, raved about the mentality and desire of this young team: “A lot of guys with a lot to prove. We’ve got a lot of guys that like to take the opportunity and go with it. There’s a lot of hungry guys out there who haven’t had the opportunity to wear the Stars and Stripes before. So everybody’s really hungry to take this as far as we can. It’s a really good group.”

Funnily enough, however, while the U.S. has long been known for sending young teams to the Worlds, the average American age this year is 25 – to Canada’s 24. In fact, 10 players on Canada’s roster were born in 1999 or later.

It’s taken time for fresh-faced forwards like Maxime Comtois (3+1=4) and Cole Perfetti (2+0=2) to start looking more comfortable with the World Championship’s pace, style, and big ice. And even at this late stage, Canada remains essentially a one-line team, with established NHLers Mangiapane (5+4=9) and Connor Brown (2+9=11) flanking captain Adam Henrique (5+4=9), who scored the tying goal against the ROC team.

Usually, a lack of scoring depth dooms a team’s hopes of winning the Worlds. But when Canadian starting goalie Darcy Kuemper steps up with a solid 25-save performance, as he did in the quarter-finals, upsets become possible. And let’s face it: Canada’s victory over the ROC team was far less improbable than Finland’s 2019 medal-round triumphs over stacked Swedish, Russian, and Canadian rosters.

In Saturday’s semi-final, Canada will confront an American team with plenty of familiar NHL teammates. The Los Angeles Kings, for instance, have supplied both top-line U.S. centre Trevor Moore (4+4=8) and Canadian youngsters Gabe Vilardi and Jaret Anderson-Dolan. Kuemper and forward Michael Bunting will have their hands full trying to contain fellow Arizona Coyote Conor Garland (5+5=10). The list goes on, and this familiarity should spice up the on-ice intensity.

Although the chemistry of Jason Robertson (3+4=7), a 2021 Calder Trophy candidate from the Dallas Stars, with Moore and Garland has proved integral in the current seven-game winning streak under coach Jack Capuano, the Americans are not a one-line team. In particular, the trio of Eric Robinson, Colin Blackwell, and Kevin Labanc has been picking up steam, combining for two goals and six points in the 6-1 quarter-final dismissal of Slovakia. Moreover, the U.S. commitment to two-way, with just nine goals against in eight games, speaks for itself.

While the two sides have comparable power plays, with the U.S. going 4-for-20 and Canada 5-for-29, Capuano’s squad has more of a penalty-killing advantage with the tournament’s best percentage (95.4). But Canada (89.4) is no slouch either.

It’s unclear whether 18-year-old phenom Matty Beniers and veteran defenceman Matt Roy will be available to play for the U.S. on Saturday after they suffered injuries versus Slovakia. But the Americans have found a way all tournament long.

The reality is that overall, the Americans have been a better team, including their 5-1 round-robin win over Canada. Yet none of that will be remembered if the Canadians find a way to dig down again – as they did against ROC – and grind out another win. Expect much physicality.

With points or victories in four of their last five games, the Canadians have been steadily improving and happily silencing their doubters. They’re eager to take the next step in their Cinderella run. It should all make for a tremendous battle of North America on Saturday.