HELSINKI, Finland -- Several well-respected hockey observers tabbed Team USA as the favorite to win the gold medal at this year's World Junior Championship. After all, they reasoned, the Americans returned eight players from last year's team that finished fourth, and many of the players were on the Under-18 team that won the gold in 2002.
And with University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves taking over for Lou Vairo, the Americans would have the added benefit of a top-notch coach directing traffic behind the bench.
Clearly, Canadian head coach Mario Durocher heard some of the pre-tourney hype.
"[The Americans] are favorites," Durocher proclaimed after watching the Americans advance to the gold medal game with a 2-1 win over Finland on Saturday.
Earlier in the day, Team Canada blasted a timid Czech team, 7-1, in the other semifinal.
"They are a veteran team," Durocher said, continuing his assessment of the much-expected showdown between his club and Team USA. "They have a bunch of guys back from last year's team. Everybody has been saying they're the favorite."
Well, Mario, not everybody.
After seeing the two clubs on Saturday, the Canadians would have to be considered the favorite -- if there is such a thing -- in Monday's tournament finale.
"Who's the favorite?" parroted USA defenseman Ryan Suter (Predators, 2003, eighth overall) when asked the question. "It's hard to say. We haven't seen them play since we've been here because we were at the other venue."
While there might be some debate over which team should be the favorite, there is no argument that the best two teams in the tournament have reached the final game. The Canadians are a perfect 5-0, outscoring their opponents, 32-5. Team Canada has been so dominant, big-name goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (Penguins, 2003, first overall) has rarely been tested.
Team USA also carries a 5-0 record in the gold-medal match. And, like Canada, the Americans have been decidedly better than the opposition, outscoring opponents 23-5.
While most would assume that both clubs play a physical North American game, this tilt will be more a clash of old-school, hard-nosed Canadian hockey against the hybrid game (a mix of Canadian and European styles) employed by the Americans.
"They use a lot of 1-2-2 forechecking schemes," Durocher said. "They play a little more of a European style. They have some guys that can skate, so they can be dangerous in transition.
"But they also have some big kids, so they can play tough, too."
In the past, the American teams have been drawn into a more physical game against the Canadians. If they fall into that trap on Monday, they'll be receiving a silver medal.
"We have to play our game," said Eaves, who spent one season coaching Helsinki-based IFK in the Finnish Elite League. "We have to move the puck. If we hold onto the puck too long, we'll have a problem."
A problem like being slammed into the boards by oversized forwards like Anthony Stewart (Panthers, 2003, first round), Ryan Getzlaf (Ducks, 2003, first round), Jeff Carter (Flyers, 2003, first round) or Brent Burns (Wild, 2003, first round).
In the semifinals, the Finns caused chaos deep in the Americans' end with an aggressive forecheck. The Canadians, with bigger and more talented forwards, are capable of doing much more damage. In the gold-medal game, the Canadians' plan is to get the puck deep and force turnovers with a physical forecheck.
"We're not going to change our game plan," Durocher said. "We'll continue to run our four lines and try and establish our forecheck."
The American wingers, who like to play high in the zone, will have to do what they can to hold-up the forechecking Canadian forwards. If they don't, it likely will be a long night for key Team USA defensemen Suter and Mark Stuart.
American goalie Al Montoya, who was excellent in stopping 25 of 26 shots against Finland, will have to be razor sharp against Canada. For one, Eaves isn't worried about his goaltending.
"He was great against Finland," Eaves said. "I think he's gotten better with every game. His confidence seems to have grown throughout the tournament."
Montoya, currently playing at the University of Michigan, is expected to be among the top goalies taken at the 2004 draft. Last year, Canada's Fleury made his mark with NHL scouts by backstopping a silver medal team. If "favored" Team USA is going to skate off with the gold medal, Montoya will have to be at least as good as Fleury was last year. Maybe, he'll have to be better.
Calgary prospect Dion Phaneuf, the ninth overall pick in the 2003 draft, has been a tower of strength on a big and talented Canadian backline. One longtime tournament observer said, "Phaneuf's performance might be the best by a Canadian defenseman in any World Junior tournament." Now, that's pretty high praise. Phaneuf delivered a Scott Stevens-like hit on Czech forward Rostislav Olesz in the final minutes of the second period. Although the hit appeared to be a clean shoulder check, referee Thomas Andersson called a two-minute elbowing penalty against Phaneuf. Then, after Olesz collapsed in front of the Czech bench (he was removed on a stretcher), Andersson changed his call to a five-minute major and game misconduct. By tournament rule, the tournament directors can review the hit and add an additional one-game suspension as a disciplinary measure. After a few uneasy minutes, the directors ruled that there would be further punishment ...
It's funny to see players change right before your eyes. Czech right wing Petr Kanko, a Kings prospect, terrorized his Slovakian opponents in Friday's quarterfinal win. On Saturday, however, against the Canadians, Kanko kept to himself for most of the semifinal loss. Like the vast majority of his teammates, Kanko had no desire to incur the wrath of the bigger Canadians ...
Czech goalie Marek Schwarz, who will be among the first stoppers chosen in the 2004 draft, has seen enough of the Canadians. He allowed 10 goals in less than two games against Team Canada. Schwarz was lifted from Saturday's loss after Canada's Mike Richards (Flyers, 24th overall, 2003) slipped a bad angle shot past him midway through the third period ...
Rangers prospect Nigel Dawes, a fifth round pick in '03, opened the scoring for Canada with a beautiful individual effort, splitting the Czech defense and sliding a wrist shot under Schwarz. At 5'8, 176 pounds, Dawes is the shortest and lightest player on the Canadian roster. Still, one scout feels Dawes could make it to the NHL. "I wouldn't count him out," the scout said. "He's a tough kid and he's got a lot of intangibles in his game." ...
Because they were the higher seed, Team USA was the home team against Finland. While they didn't have the crowd behind them, they did get the last change. On Monday, Canada has been designated as the home team because of a better goal-differential ...
Montoya and Canadian forward Jeff Tambellini are teammates and close friends at Michigan. As for facing his college pal, Montoya says, "he always goes for one spot, but I'm not going to tell you where." ...
Last year, the Canadians defeated the Americans, 3-2, in the semifinals. In tournament history, Canada is 21-4-3 against the USA. The Americans haven't beaten the Canadians since Dec. 31, 1998. Led by Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, the U.S. shocked Canada, 5-2, in Winnipeg. Goalie Roberto Luongo suffered the loss for Canada.