UFA, Russia — It’s a moment that Jonathan Huberdeau still remembers vividly. He remembers suffering defeat at the hands of the Russians in the semifinals of the 2012 world junior championship.
A year later the wound is still fresh and the disappointment still stings.
“It’s been a year, but it feels like it was yesterday that it happened,” said Huberdeau, one of Canada’s alternate captains.
On Thursday, he will get another chance to advance to the gold medal game when Team Canada faces the U.S. at Ufa Arena at 4 a.m. ET. Like last year, when Canada won bronze in Calgary, the team will have had two days of rest before the semifinal.
“For sure we think about that – we had two days off – it’s the same scenario that happened last year two days off and then we play a semifinal,” said the third overall pick of the Florida Panthers in 2011. “It’s a different team and it’s a different tournament.
“We just want to have a great start and we want to be focused, that’s the most important thing for us to make sure we have a great start because last year we didn’t.”
The Americans had an easy time dispatching the Czech Republic 7-0 in their quarterfinal. John Gaudreau led the U.S. attack with a hat trick, while Riley Barber scored twice and Ryan Hartman and J.T. Miller added singles. Canada beat the U.S. 2-1 when they met in their Pool B round-robin game on Sunday. This time, however, the Americans are going into the game against Canada on a high after scoring seven goals – five of which came on the power play.
“It’s huge,” said Miller, the 15th overall pick of the New York Rangers in 2011. “It’s really good for confidence. Sometimes the pucks weren’t going in for us, but (Wednesday) they definitely were. It’s nice to know we’ve got that confidence and all that momentum going into this big game coming up.”
And while the Americans were preparing for their quarterfinal, Canada spent New Year’s Day hanging out at the team hotel. During their first off-day, Canadian players paired up and spent a lot time competing in a single-elimination NHL Xbox tournament. Huberdeau and fellow Quebec native Phillip Danault ended up winning the Team Canada video game title.
“It was two French guys. We pulled out a win over Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and (Jonathan) Drouin,” said Huberdeau of their 5-3 victory. “It was a great game.
“We had a lot of fun.”
They also created a new game – Päshénkå – using a stuffed “Angry Birds” toy as a ball.
“We were just trying to score on each other in the hallway,” said Mark Scheifele. “It was like mini-sticks, but without sticks.”
In Team Canada’s case, necessity – or plain old boredom – proved to be the mother of invention.
“I like to think of it as a sign of creativity,” said Scheifele with a laugh. “All the guys are going to find a way to have fun.
“This is our family for the month. All the boys are the same, all the boys have a little kid in them. We all want to have fun and I think that’s why we all get along so well.”
Canada will be well rested while the U.S carries momentum into Thursday’s game. Canadian head coach Steve Spott said he ran a hard practice on Wednesday morning – one that included many battle drills – in order to keep from falling into any kind of complacency.
“That’s a double-edged sword,” said Spott of getting an extra day of rest. “If you play (Wednesday) then you worry about injuries and officiating, if you don’t (play) then you’re worried about taking it too easy. As a coach you have to prepare and you have to make sure that obviously when you do get the rest that you handle your practice the right way and I liked our pace.”
Spott said he also spoke with Nugent-Hopkins and Scheifele about keeping 17-year-old sensation Jonathan Drouin on the top line alongside the pair of NHL first-rounders. Drouin has been outstanding in the tournament and has earned his coach’s trust despite his tender age.
“I think he’s read off of that trust as well,” said Spott. “I think he plays without fear, he’s not afraid to handle the puck – he doesn’t just turn it over – he keeps it. I think that says a lot about his mindset as a hockey player.”
The Americans gave Canada the toughest time in round-robin play and – like Spott’s crew – the U.S. has a lot of fast forwards who can cause trouble on the larger ice surface.
“I think they’ve got real good speed,” said Spott of Canada’s cross-border rival. “I think their (defensive) activation is really good with Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones, they have players that can activate off the rush and create offence.”
In the meantime, Huberdeau said he has spoken to a number of his new teammates who were not there for the 6-5 loss to Russia in the semis. He said his message to them was clear: Be ready to battle and don’t let the opportunity slip past you.
“Try not to be too soft,” said Huberdeau. “We just want to have a good start, that’s important … we’re telling the guys, it’s important and it happened last year so we don’t want it to happen this year.”