Bring on the North American showdown
by Lucas Aykroyd|05 JAN 2021
The last Canada-U.S. gold medal game was at the 2017 World Juniors, where the Americans won 5-4 in a shootout at Montreal's Bell Centre.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Canada is on the verge of becoming the first team to win consecutive gold medals at the World Juniors since (wait for it) Canada earned five straight championships from 2005 to 2009. Yet with this history of dominance, it’s surprising that the 2021 host nation has never defeated the archrival Americans in a gold medal game on Canadian ice.

When Boyd Devereaux scored the winner and Marc Denis earned a 23-save shutout in Canada’s 2-0 win over the U.S. in 1997, that first Canadian five-peat came in Geneva. None of the players competing in Tuesday’s all-North American final were even born then.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has won the last three finals with Canada. After their historic first gold in 2004 in Helsinki (4-3), the Americans ruled in Canadian rinks, winning in 2010 in Saskatoon (6-5 on John Carlson’s OT goal) and 2017 in Montreal (5-4 on Troy Terry’s shootout winner).

“Obviously those are some of the biggest games in USA Hockey history right now,” said John Farinacci, a 19-year-old U.S. forward from Red Bank, New Jersey. “John Carlson had that OT winner and he’s a [fellow New] Jersey guy. So he’s obviously a guy I look up to. And then you have 2017 with Troy Terry and his heroics in that game. So two great hockey games, and hopefully we have a chance to get something special done tomorrow.”

Farinacci scored his fifth goal in the dramatic 4-3 semi-final win over Finland. The U.S. offence looks strong overall, keyed by the ultra-creative Trevor Zegras, who is tied with Canadian co-captain Dylan Cozens for the World Junior points lead (16).

“For Zegras, the numbers speak for themselves,” said U.S. head coach Nate Leaman. “We had a really tough pool with Sweden and Russia. Zee showed up against every team. He’s very worthy of being the player that's leading the tournament in points.”

Fans of the Stars and Stripes can certainly find reasons to believe they’ll celebrate yet another triumph in another Canadian city. These range from U.S. captain Cam York’s 6 points (second-highest among WJC defencemen) to sniper Arthur Kaliyev’s timely resurgence with goals in consecutive games, including his late winner versus Finland set up by Alex Turcotte.

Yet while the well-disciplined U.S. has an impressive 34-10 goal difference this year, undefeated Canada’s 41-4 margin says even more about its commitment to two-way hockey. In Edmonton, the defending champs have a chance to break the tournament record for fewest goals allowed (6), set by the 2006 team that repeated under coach Brent Sutter in Vancouver.

“We take just as much pride in our defensive game as we do in our offensive game,” said Canadian forward Alex Newhook, who was hurt in the New Year’s Eve win over Finland but returned to draw first blood in the 5-0 semi-final blanking of Russia. “It’s been stressed since Day One that that mentality in our game would be huge for us, and it has been, no doubt.”

Goalie Devon Levi has benefited from this approach as well. After playing for the Junior A Carleton Place Canadians last season, the steady 19-year-old Montreal native has gone from a virtual unknown to a household name across Canada. He has a jaw-dropping 0.53 GAA, and his 97.5 save percentage is on track to break Carey Price’s single-tournament Canadian record (96.1 percent, including goalies who played at least five games) from 2007.

Levi has already tied Justin Pogge’s shutout record for a single World Juniors (three), although the 2020 seventh-round pick of the Florida Panthers (212th overall) emphasizes that this is not his priority.

“I am not playing for a shutout record, I am playing for a gold medal,” said Levi. “So [tying the all-time shutout record] doesn’t really bother me, and I am just looking ahead to tomorrow. It might be something I can look at after the tournament, but the job is not done yet.”

U.S. netminder Spencer Knight, a 2019 first-round pick of the Panthers (13th overall), is hoping to throw a monkey wrench into Canada’s plans by winning his first gold medal in IIHF competition. The 19-year-old Boston College star has shone at Rogers Place as well, earning two shutouts while helping the Americans forge a tournament-record shutout streak of 218:53.

Still, when you contemplate Canada’s relentless four-line attack and its rock-solid defence headlined by the dynamic duo of co-captain Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale, the extent of the challenge awaiting America becomes palpable. Canada has yet to trail in a game.

“We know that they’re the team to beat in this tournament,” said Leaman. “We know everything that’s been written about them. You know, from Day One, we knew that this is one of their best teams all-time. And we want to go. We want the challenge, the opportunity.”

Thus far, Canadian coach Andre Tourigny’s team has faced two bona fide gold-medal contenders – 2019 champ Finland and 2020 silver medalist Russia – and has dominated both of them. That has gone a long way toward assuaging the concerns of Canadian fans who feared their team wasn’t going full throttle in the 3-1 round-robin win over Slovakia and the 3-0 quarter-final win over the Czech Republic.

Tourigny has gone up against some world-class hockey minds in Finland’s Antti Pennanen – an assistant coach with Finland’s winning teams at the 2016 World Juniors and 2019 Worlds – and Russia’s legendary Igor Larionov. Neither could mount an effective tactical response to the Canadians.

The U.S.’s best strategy is likely to play Canada as evenly as possible at 5-on-5, try to draw some penalties, and then cash in with its tournament-leading power play (42.8 percent).

Assistant captain Cole Caufield could be the biggest difference-maker with the man advantage. The 20-year-old Montreal Canadiens prospect is arguably the greatest pure goal-scoring talent at these World Juniors and has shown flashes of inspiration in these playoffs, but has yet to break out (2+3=5).

Yet as Russia’s Ilya Kovalchuk showed in his two-goal performance versus Canada, including the overtime winner, in the 2008 IIHF World Championship final in Quebec City, it just takes one fabulous game to turn the entire perception of your tournament around.

The U.S. has eight returning players from 2020 and Canada boasts six. Veterans and rookies on both sides are excited about their chance to make history.

This has been an unusual and challenging way for young men to pursue their hockey goals, from lengthy quarantines in hotel rooms to games in front of empty arenas. Yet the magic of a North American showdown on the World Junior stage still carries the same resonance.

“To be able to play in a Canada-USA gold medal game in this tournament, it's a dream come true, and we're gonna make the most of it,” said Turcotte.

Canada, of course, intends to make the most of it by finally topping the U.S. on Canadian ice. The border between these two nations might be closed right now, but the cross-border hockey rivalry remains as hot ever.