UFA, Russia — For the first time, in a long time, American defenceman Jake McCabe stood on his blueline, saw his nation’s flag raised and heard the Star Spangled Banner being played.
“I think to myself how many times I’ve had to see a different country’s flag go up and I can count that on one hand,” said the U.S. captain. “It’s not fun and it’s pretty awesome having that flag rising up at the end and singing our national anthem.
“It’s pretty special.”
His special moment was a nightmare for Team Canada.
The Americans stunned the Canadians with a 5-1 victory in the semifinals of the world junior championship. The Canadians, who earned a bye to the semifinal, were undefeated in round-robin play and had beaten the U.S. earlier in the week.
“We played exactly how we needed to,” said McCabe, who scored a pair of goals for the U.S. “We played in their zone, we controlled the pace and we put them on their heels right off the bat. They really didn’t know what hit them in the first, I don’t think.”
It’s the second time in nine years the U.S. beat Canada at a world junior championship. John Gaudreau also scored twice and Jim Vesey added a single marker for the U.S., who will face Sweden in the gold-medal game. After Sweden's 3-2 shootout win over Russia, defenceman Robert Hagg was asked by a Russian reporter if the defending champions got lucky.
"Lucky? No," said Hagg. "We were better."
Canada will face Russia in the bronze medal match on Saturday at 4 a.m. ET.
"I don't know what to say," said Russian forward Daniil Zharkov, an Edmonton Oilers draft pick. "It's really hard to talk right now."
Canada beat Russia in the round-robin portion of the tournament.
"It doesn't matter who plays against us," said Zharkov. "We have to win (bronze) no matter what. That's it."
Canada might have to play without defenceman Griffin Reinhart, who has a hearing with the IIHF disciplinary committee scheduled on Friday to discuss a high-sticking infraction. Reinhart hit American Vincent Trocheck in the helmet with his stick and was given a two-minute minor.
Team Canada’s returning players – six returnees plus NHLer Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on loan from the AHL – all noted they wanted to avoid the same fate as the 2012 tournament when they lost a 6-5 decision to Russia on home ice in Calgary.
Unlike that game, this one wasn’t even close.
Forward Jonathan Huberdeau, a third-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2011, told reporters he made a point to tell his teammates on their off-day that they needed to come out strong to avoid a similar fate.
“It was too soft,” said Huberdeau of the Canada’s opening salvo. “We didn’t skate at all in the beginning and they were all over us in our zone and they took advantage of us… we tried to come back but Gibson made some great saves.”
The urgency of the getting to the gold-medal match apparently failed to register.
“It’s hard,” said Huberdeau. “I thought I was going to have a second chance to win a gold medal, so it’s pretty disappointing. We had the team this year to do it and we didn’t. Now it’s time to turn the page and try to win a bronze medal.
“You can be disappointed for days, but it won’t change anything.”
For many Canadian fans, it’s time for the second-guessing and armchair quarterbacking to begin. Team Canada was dispatched in semifinals for a second consecutive year. Head coach Steve Spott said his team lacked energy and drive despite being thoroughly prepared to meet their cross-border rival.
This team was filled with some of the top players from the Canadian Hockey League – and Nugent-Hopkins – who might not have been available had the NHL not been in the midst of a lockout.
“I said from Day One that it’s not our divine right to win gold medals,” said Spott. “This is a global sport now. These are world-class teams right across the country. I understand the pressure that comes when you have a team that has some of the firepower that we have, but these are all quality teams.
“When you get down to one game anything can happen in junior hockey.”
American goalie John Gibson, who plays for Spott in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers, was sensational making 33 saves. It was his second trip to the tournament after playing in one game last year in Edmonton – a devastating 4-1 loss to Finland for which he publically accepted the blame – that started the U.S. on a skid. They ended up finishing in seventh place.
Like Huberdeau, this was also a second chance for Gibson – one he made good on.
“It’s great,” said Gibson, an Anaheim Ducks prospect. “I think we’re on our way. We’re heading in the right direction, but we still have one more to go.”
Ty Rattie of Airdrie, Alta., was the lone goal scorer for Canada, amid some controversy. One of the on-ice officials was heard to blow a whistle before Rattie put the puck in the net after the Americans stopped skating. The goal was reviewed and allowed to stand.
Canadian goaltender Malcolm Subban was pulled after the Americans scored their fourth goal and only faced 16 shots. Spott said that he took the Belleville Bulls netminder out and replaced him with Jordan Binnington to wake the team up and not because Subban had played badly.
“We left him out to dry,” said Spott. “The goals that they scored were quality goals. It was nothing more than trying to give our team a shot of adrenaline, but I was not disappointed with Malcolm. He played hard for us.”
Spott said the team would evaluate who would start the bronze-medal match. In a country where anything less than gold is considered an abject failure, it’s important to remember that Canada has medalled in every single world junior tournament since 1999.
And that is something Spott wants Canadians to know he doesn’t take lightly.
“We had a message,” said Spott of what he said to his players after the loss. “We came a long way and we still have an opportunity to get a medal and it’s not the colour that we wanted, but we owe it to Canadian fans to come home with a medal.”