Bring on the cross-border battle!
by Lucas Aykroyd|04 JAN 2023
The United States and Canada last met in U20 play in the gold medal game of the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. Pictures are Jackson Lacombe and Thomas Harley.
photo: Andrea Cardin / IIHF
Hockey is a team game, but as we head into Wednesday’s late World Junior semi-final between the U.S. and host Canada (19:30, Halifax), the spotlight is squarely and deservedly on Connor Bedard.

Can the Americans oust the defending champs? Will they go for their sixth gold medal of all time while denying their cross-border rivals a shot at an all-time record 20th gold medal? That all depends heavily on whether they can contain Canada’s extraordinary 17-year-old tournament scoring leader.

The degree of Bedard’s dominance at these World Juniors is hard to overstate, relative to both his own team and the other nations. Thanks to his performance in the 4-3 quarter-final win over Slovakia, including the thrilling sudden-death winner, the Regina Pats forward has already rewritten the Canadian World Junior record book. He’s set new marks for most all-time goals (16) and points (34).

“I was not really thinking about [the records],” Bedard said. “Obviously it matters, but for me it is about winning, and that is what we are here to do.”

Still, his exploits have certainly facilitated Canada’s 2023 wins. Bedard’s single-tournament Canadian record for points (21) equals the next two players in the scoring race – U.S. linemates Logan Cooley (11) and Jimmy Snuggerud (10) – put together. 

With all the attention he gets for his Auston Matthews-like shot, Bedard leads the World Juniors with 13 assists – another Canadian single-tournament record. That’s as many assists as captain Shane Wright (three), Nathan Gaucher (three), Adam Fantilli (two), Brennan Othmann (two), Dylan Guenther (two), and Zach Dean (one) put together. 

And based on the torrid goal-scoring pace the fiercely competitive North Vancouver native has set (eight in 5 games), he may or may not threaten Markus Naslund’s tournament record (13). However, with two games remaining, most observers will be surprised if Bedard doesn’t at least become the 21st century’s first WJC ace to hit double-digit goals.

However, despite the Bedard mania, let’s not sleep on the U.S. as we evaluate the rival North American rosters, position by position. The Americans are a hungry group too.

“For such a big dog in the tournament like USA to lose in the quarter-finals last year [4-2 to Czechia], it definitely hurt us as a group,” said Cutter Gauthier. “But we've got a few returnees this year, and they just preach the message that we've got to not take any game lightly. It doesn't matter who we're playing. We have to go out and play our way every single game, every single day, and get better as a group. It's been working out so far, and we're gonna keep that going into the semis.”

American goalie Trey Augustine – another mature-beyond-his-years 17-year-old – will need to respond to the greatest challenge of his IIHF career. The last time the U.S. National Team Development Program product appeared in a semi-final was at the 2022 IIHF U18 World Championship in Germany, posting 26 saves in a 6-1 romp over Czechia. The cool, athletic Augustine has excelled on Maritimes ice with a 93.8 save percentage and 1.36 GAA.

At the same time, ever since Thomas Milic took the reins as the starter, goaltending has not been the Achilles heel widely predicted for Canadar. Even though the 19-year-old Seattle Thunderbirds netminder wasn’t as busy as Slovakia’s Adam Gajan in Canada’s quarter-final victory, he delivered several game-saving stops among his 24. Milic’s 92.1 save percentage and 1.68 GAA are a solid testament to his prowess.

“He was lights out and made some key saves in overtime and in the third period,” said Canadian coach Dennis Williams. “We outshot [Slovakia], but they had a lot of high-quality chances that we needed [Milic] to step up for, and he was dynamite for us tonight.”

Defensively, it’s close to a saw-off between these two teams. The U.S. has surrendered 12 goals to Canada’s 11. And in terms of offence generated by blueliners, the top five scorers on the American D-corps have combined for 16 points, versus 17 points for Canada’s top five blueliners. Remarkably, each team’s ice time leader has logged almost an identical average. U.S. captain Luke Hughes is at 22:08, whereas Canada’s Olen Zellweger – a 2022 WJC all-star – is at 22:04.

As our focus returns to elite forwards, what may determine success or failure in this semi-final is attention to detail and execution on special teams. Canada’s power play has been devastatingly effective, clicking at a tournament-high 50 percent (13-for-26).

Interestingly, Bedard has mostly played the set-up man with the man advantage. He has just one PP goal from the 11-2 quarter-final romp over Germany, but has totalled seven PP assists. Meanwhile, Guenther (5 PP goals) and Wright (3 PP goals) have scored goals exclusively on the power play. So the U.S., when shorthanded, can’t just focus on taking good looks away from Bedard.

Establishing possession on the power play is also critical, and no U.S. centre can match the faceoff prowess of Logan Stankoven, whose 74.2 percent rate leads the tournament.

Now, the top U.S. line with Cooley, Snuggerud, and Gauthier has been great fun to watch for Moncton fans. It’s also been the second-most productive trio (29 points) at these World Juniors after Bedard’s line with Stankoven and Joshua Roy (36 points). 

However, U.S. coach Rand Pecknold’s post-Germany comments on Cooley – a master of behind-the-back passes – also hint at some of the tendencies that Canada may look to exploit in a hammer-and-tongs North American showdown.

“The thing I've been on him about is just being honest and managing his shift length, and he's done a great job of that,” Pecknold said. “When he does that, and when he plays that honest game, he dominates. The cute plays, they work some of the time, but I think when he's honest – I thought he was really honest the last couple of games here – he’s been great.”

Any longtime international hockey observer can attest that Canada – when successful against the Americans – often delights in simplifying its game, playing straight-line hockey, and banging in a few greasy goals before shutting down the top U.S. forwards as they attempt to carry the puck through the neutral zone. It’s essentially the same template Canada employs versus the Russians.

The second U.S. line of Rutger McGroarty, Jackson Blake, and Chaz Lucius will likewise need to be aware of not committing costly turnovers, especially when Bedard is on the ice.

The American power play is dangerous enough at 37.5 percent (6-for-16) to create worries for Canada if the hosts spend too much time in the sin bin. The Canadians have certainly been less disciplined than the U.S. at these World Juniors, totalling 88 PIM to the U.S.’s 53 PIM and 19 minors to the U.S’s 14 minors.

History also offers optimism for American fans. The U.S. has marched to gold at three of the last five World Juniors staged in Canada (2010, 2017, 2021). They’ve also won four of the last five playoff round meetings with the Canadians, including the three aforementioned finals and the last semi-final clash in Ufa, Russia (5-1 on two goals apiece from Johnny Gaudreau and Jake McCabe) 

However, once again, Wednesday’s outcome largely hinges on the Bedard factor. These are two relatively evenly matched teams – apart from the 17-year-old generational talent. If the U.S. can limit Bedard to two points or less, they have a better chance of winning. If not, Canada will very likely advance to the gold medal game against the winner of the Czechia-Sweden semi-final.