Buffalo — They were reminded every time they walked by that wall in Niagara Falls before the tournament, where letters from local schoolchildren wished them well, pledged their support and begged them, almost above all else, to beat the United States.
There were more reminders, from reporters and from every minor hockey coach who sent an email with suggestions for new strategies. And all of them led up to what happened on Monday, when Canada finally got its shot at the U.S. at the IIHF world junior hockey championship in Buffalo, a shot the veterans had been craving for a year.
And it was a shot they did not miss, bending the host team to their will in a 4-1 win at HSBC Arena that helped to avenge a loss in the gold-medal game last year in Saskatoon. Canada will face Russia in the championship game on Wednesday.
“I think we just wore them out all game,” Canadian forward Marcus Foligno said. “We kind of beat them in our zone, and in their zone sometimes, too.”
It is the 10th straight year in which the Canadians will play for gold, and it may be one of their most unexpected appearances. The team does not have an established star, with eligible players such as Taylor Hall (Edmonton), Tyler Seguin (Boston) and Matt Duchene (Colorado) having all landed regular work in the National Hockey League.
They beat Russia 6-3 in the opening game of the preliminary round, but finished second in Group B after a heartbreaking loss to Sweden in the finale. Sweden lost 4-3 in a shootout against Russia in the earlier semifinal game on Monday.
Canada was aggressive, but not as recklessly physical as it had been for stretches of some earlier games. Defenders closed gaps, maintained proper spacing and made life easier for goaltender Mark Visentin.
The 18-year-old was making his second straight start, despite his sometimes shaky debut in the quarter-final round against Switzerland. Visentin had replaced Olivier Roy for that game, after Roy struggled badly in the preliminary round finale against Sweden.
And it was almost as though he was a different goaltender against the U.S., guarding his rebounds carefully and playing the angles properly. It helped that Canada conceded only 15 shots through the first two periods, while dominating the U.S. on the forecheck.
Curtis Hamilton gave the Canadians a rare lead two minutes into the first period, giving a rabidly partisan crowd license to roar. It roared again after Brett Connolly froze one U.S. defender on a rush down the right wing, waiting until the last possible moment to fire a picture-perfect cross-ice feed to Quinton Howden, who deflected it past an over-worked Jack Campbell in the American net.
The U.S. compounded its own trouble with a pair of penalties in the second. A high-stick and a hooking penalty gave Canada a two-man advantage for 96 seconds, and it needed only a minute to build a 3-0 lead. Captain Ryan Ellis fired from the point and Ryan Johansen buried the rebound.
The U.S. had taken only seven penalties in its four preliminary round games, entering the semifinal as the most disciplined team in the tournament.
Something about the way Canada played seemed to change that, shaking the popular pre-tournament favourites from their normal game. The U.S. set up camp in Buffalo as the defending champions, having upset the Canadians with a 6-5 overtime win in the gold-medal game at last year’s tournament.
“I think we just wore them out all game. We kind of beat them in our zone, and in their zone sometimes, too.” - Canadian forward Marcus Foligno
But when Canadian fans started chanting “This is our house,” during the game, no American was in position to argue with them.
“We knew it was coming, it’s our fault for not being ready for it,” U.S. captain John Ramage said. “When you win the gold medal, I think you know every team’s coming for you — it’s just something we have to rebound from.”
The Americans will now try to salvage their home tournament by beating Sweden for the bronze on Wednesday.
It’s an opportunity for some redemption after a dreadful performance.
“One of the things I said to them was as bad as we feel right now, the beauty of this is we do have an opportunity to play another game and to show people how good a team we actually are,” said head coach Keith Allain.
“We’ll appeal to their pride, we’ll let them mourn tonight’s game, try to have an upbeat practice and move forward.”
Campbell was one of the lone bright spots for the Americans with 37 saves, many of them preventing the score from being even more lopsided. Allain called him the “one player on our team who played to his potential.”
That’s why Allain really couldn’t argue with the final result.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think the way we played tonight we deserved to win,” he said. “And one of the things about hockey is you usually get what you deserve.”
With files from the Canadian Press