Sun Jan 02 09:15pm EST
BUFFALO — Team USA is playing to win a hockey tournament. Canada is playing to win back its birthright.
After five games at the world junior championship, one simple truth seems to be left unsaid with Team Canada. There is such a thing as wanting it too bad. Or maybe it just comes down to talent, or an off-year in goal. There is no getting by admitting Canada, which will face Team USA on Monday at HSBC Arena in a semifinal rematch of last year's gold-medal game, hasn't inspired that usual Canadian certitude. First came the New Year's Eve loss to Sweden, followed by a slog past Switzerland, 4-1 in the quarter-final. They have a pulse, but who knows how it will thump in 24 hours.
"You draw your plan up with your team, but the the one thing you can't practise or know the response to is pressure," Team Canada coach Dave Cameron said when asked about Canada's latest early-game lull, which included being down 1-0 for much of the first period after new starting goalie Mark Visentin was beaten on the first Swiss shot.
"This is the best players in the world this age (19 and younger) and your goalie is going to face some shots," Cameron said. "If you look at that goal today, if you shot that a thousand times, Mark would stop 999. That's why you play the game. If it was just about skill, you'd never drop the puck. You'd just do a bunch of skill drills.
"One of the things you can't factor in is pressure. That's why so many people play this game. It's the unknown."
Finishing behind the U.S. — realities of being a nation of 34 million vs. one of 300 million be damned — two years in row would be tough to take north of the border. Team Canada, 21 players who were all fans once, has taken this to heart. Just ask Cody Eakin, a skills guy who's morphed into an energy player for two weeks, about that overtime loss last January.
"It was a bitter feeling, it kind of hurt to lose, even though I wasn't part of the team," he said. "Right at that moment, I knew I still had another year so I was going to get a second chance. Hopefully, tomorrow we can go out and make the guys of last year proud."
"You just want the team to win so bad, it is such a Canadian tradition," added the Washington Capitals prospect, who belongs to the same NHL organization as U.S. overtime hero John Carlson. "We've got something to prove and we'll look for a better start [Monday]."
Or ask Tampa Bay Lightning first-round pick Brett Connolly, who is playing hurt (although he played better Sunday and hit a post in the third period).
"Being a Canadian hockey player, you're connected closely to the world junior team. It hurt not only the people who were at the game but the people who were watching the game on television."
'Gripping the sticks'
Canada will have to overcome a Team USA which arguably has more game-breaking scorers than Canada's two, Brayden Schenn and Ryan Johansen. The U.S. defence corps and goaltending has not been as tested since its opener vs. Finland, but has not had as many nervous moments. Plus there is the burn of last season.
"We just have to control our emotions," defenceman Calvin de Haan, one of four Canadian players who was in the 2010 gold-medal game, said of Monday's matchup. "We can't really get too hyped or else we might start gripping the sticks too hard."
Perhaps they can find that optimal zone that lets an athlete perform with an in-your-face jauntiness. It starts with from the goal out. Visentin seems well-aware the Canuck goaltending has hardly been a sure thing.
"Obviously it's the biggest tournament of my life, the world junior championships," the netminder said after making 21 saves, enough to earn the start for Monday. "I’ve always dreamed of playing for this team and finally I'm here. I’m trying to stay even keel out there, not get too high or too low."
Sunday offered some healing after the Swedish setback. Against a Swiss team that can render the passing and shooting lanes more clogged than Niagara border crossings, Canada just worked away. They generated 50 shots on goal against a team that also played Team USA tough, losing 2-1 in the round-robin.
"We overcame that fairly well," forward Zack Kassian said of cracking the Swiss defence. "We got the puck down low. The U.S. is very fast, really skilled. Whoever comes with the best game plan will win."
Well, that and taking the initiative early. You could count on one hand how many glass-shaking, chiclet-ratting bodychecks Canada threw early on against the speedy Swiss. That contributed to one of the quietest Canadian crowds at a North America-based world junior in recent memory.
"I think one of the advantages we have is size — that's only an advantage if we use it," Cameron said afterward. "There's a couple of teams in this tournament that are quicker than us, so we don't want to get into a run-and-gun."
Now Canada, injuries and doubts and all, has to face a rested Team USA.
"That could be an advantage," Eakin said of playing Sunday. "After that game, you're right into it."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.