Border battle

TORONTO, CANADA - DECEMBER 31: Canada's Dylan Strome #19 stares down USA's Colin White #18 before a face off in the first period during preliminary round action at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Who will take gold, U.S. or host Canada?

It’s been seven years since the U.S. and Canada last battled for World Junior gold. Saskatoon 2010 was a classic, and we might get another one in Montreal.

In that 2010 final, forward Jordan Eberle came up big for Canada with two late goals to tie it up, but U.S. defenceman John Carlson’s second of the night was the biggest, as it gave the Americans a 6-5 overtime win. It’s exciting to envision who could emerge as the heroes in Thursday’s ultimate showdown at the Bell Centre.

Position by position, there are candidates aplenty on both sides after the semi-finals, in which the U.S. topped Russia 4-3 in a shootout and Canada downed Sweden 5-2. The 3-1 U.S. win over Canada on New Year’s Eve seems like a distant memory.

“This win is great, but we came here on a mission to win gold, so we have a chance to do that,” said American scoring leader Clayton Keller after the semi-final. “We'll focus on that now.”

Let’s start in goal. Netminding appeared to be Canada’s Achilles heel – until 8:05 of the first period versus Sweden. That’s when Carl Grundstrom made it 2-1 on Sweden’s third shot and Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme yanked starter Connor Ingram in favour of Carter Hart. The 18-year-old Everett Silvertips goalie, who hadn’t played since the 10-2 win over Latvia on 29 December, stopped all 28 shots he faced. Hart went from sitting on the bench to shaking the legendary Martin Brodeur’s hand as Canada’s Player of the Game.

“I think we have to give lots of credit to Carter Hart,” said defenceman Thomas Chabot. “He came into the game and made lots of saves, very good saves for us.”

But U.S. goalie Tyler Parsons could also be a difference-maker. The London Knights veteran has a 1.92 GAA and 91.6 save percentage, and must feel confident after outduelling the more-touted Russian netminder Ilya Samsonov in a seven-round shootout. Forward Troy Terry grabbed the headlines with his three five-hole goals to win the semi-final, but as defenceman Charlie McAvoy pointed out: “Him and Parsons are the reason we're going to the finals.”

Looking at blueliners, Canada’s Chabot is the clear favourite to win Best Defenceman honours right now. The smooth-skating Ottawa Senators prospect leads all D-men with eight points and is averaging a team-high 23:18 per night. (He hit a whopping 27:17 versus Sweden.) With Philippe Myers injured, Kale Clague has slotted in seamlessly as Chabot’s partner. Also, the physical Jake Bean-Noah Juulsen duo took a toll on the Swedes.

However, the Americans, the tournament’s only unbeaten team, haven’t gotten this far with no-names on defence. McAvoy, who leads their blueline corps with four points and an average of 21:33 per game, is the anchor in his second World Juniors. The assistant captain will need to recover quickly for the final after logging 31:55 versus Russia. Caleb Jones, also solid in every zone, played 28:41.

“From the start, we’ve realized that it’s more about us than who we’re playing against,” said McAvoy. “If we bring our game, I think we’ll like the result.”

Still, as expected, Canada looks deeper on the back end.

At forward, both North American teams have shone. Keller and Canadian captain Dylan Strome are tied for third in tournament scoring with 10 points apiece. No Canadian has more goals than the U.S.’s Colin White (six), who cashed in twice versus Russia, but Julien Gauthier and Taylor Raddysh are right behind him (five apiece), and Mathew Barzal has been a real catalyst.

Overall, Canada has scored 31 goals to the U.S.’s 24, and the Canadian forwards can’t complain after putting five pucks in the Swedish net. They imposed their will on coach Tomas Monten’s team, especially down low and with their net-front presence. They look ready for an even rougher battle with the Stars and Stripes.

Anticipating the gold medal game, Gauthier said: “I think we’re going to be harder on the puck, play physical. We’re going to be good on both sides of the ice.”

As hosts, the Canadians have won five out of 11 previous World Juniors (1991, 1995, 2006, 2009, 2015). Their odds look good, but there are no sure things at this tournament.

The Americans have just passed through the fire. Beating Russia in a shootout was monumental, considering the Russians eliminated the U.S. from gold-medal contention in 2014, 2015, and 2016. But now, do coach Bob Motzko’s players have enough left in their batteries to top the hyper-motivated Canadians? We’ll soon see if the U.S., questing for its fourth gold of all time, is turbo-charged or drained for this border battle.

“Having the whole nation behind you, it’s going to be pretty cool,” said Canada’s Anthony Cirelli. “We’re excited for tomorrow.”

Only two things are certain: the team that wants it the most will win, and the eyes of the hockey world will be fixed on Montreal when the gold medal game begins at 20:00 local time.

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