- Craig Custance
It was what USA Hockey wanted all along. It wanted to face Canada's best players. There was never any quiet hope among the Americans that the lockout would end and send Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele, Morgan Rielly or any of the other talented Team Canada players to the NHL before the World Junior Championships began in Russia.
Not because they wanted to prove anything to their rivals, but because those who run USA Hockey prefer best-on-best competition. Just like they want to see NHL players in the Olympics, they wanted to see the best possible competition in this tournament.
While most of the country was sleeping, the Americans beat Team Canada 5-1 early Thursday morning in the semifinals to advance to Saturday's gold medal game against Sweden.
That was accomplishment enough. That they did it against the best eligible Canadians in the world made it that much better. It eliminates one more excuse for Team USA's recent international success against its rival.
"It makes it even more special," said Team USA standout forward John Gaudreau by phone after the win. "It was awesome to play those guys who just played in the NHL or will be playing soon. To beat them, and beat them pretty good -- we're really excited. It's a great win for us and USA Hockey."
It's beyond time to label every win over Canada a monumental victory for hockey in the United States, because that organization expects to be able to beat the best countries in the world. It's been that way for a while. The generation of Americans that helped Team USA win a silver medal in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics had a swagger on par with any in hockey. Guys like Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Ryan Suter, Dustin Brown and David Backes expected to beat everyone. They nearly did.
So when Jordan Eberle, who knows a thing or two about success in the World Junior Championships (winning a gold in 2009), woke up around 5 a.m. today to check on his Edmonton teammate and his home country's progress against the Americans, he was surprised by the lopsided score -- but not that surprised by the outcome.
"A little," he said. "It's one game. And it sounded like the U.S. has a pretty good team and played pretty well, they deserved it."
Fellow Oilers star Taylor Hall pointed out that the Americans had NHL-quality talent on their roster as well and he's right. When the NHL season finally starts, Montreal will give Alex Galchenyuk a look. It's possible that if we were in the middle of a long NHL season the Rangers would have J.T. Miller on their roster by now.
Still, even with the talent level equaling out in these tournaments, it doesn't change the expectations for Team Canada. Or the disappointment when games like this one ruin the early morning of Canadian hockey fans. That's now four consecutive WJC tournaments in which Canada will fall short of the gold medal.
"It's been a tough go for Hockey Canada. We haven't done well at the World Championships, the world juniors," Hall said. "It started with us in Saskatoon with [Team USA defenseman] John Carlson scoring in overtime. It's unfortunate. Canada expects so much from their hockey players and the program, I'm sure it's devastated we're not in the finals."
After the game, Team USA players allowed themselves time to celebrate the win, hanging out at the team hotel in Ufa playing some cards. But to truly establish itself as one of the best U.S. teams, beating Canada in the semifinals can't be the final accomplishment. Behind 42 saves from Ryan Miller in the 2010 Winter Olympics, Team USA beat Canada in the preliminary round of that tournament. It was a huge win, but it wasn't the one people remember as those Olympics fade from our memory. They remember Sidney Crosby scoring in overtime in the gold medal game and the celebration in Vancouver that lasted the entire night.
For these young Americans, there's a danger in letting this morning's win linger into any preparation for Saturday's gold medal game against the talented Swedes.
"I think so. We can't enjoy it for too long," said Team USA defenseman Jacob Trouba by phone after the win. "Today doesn't mean anything tomorrow."
After a dominating performance against a Canadian roster enhanced by the NHL lockout, Team USA is relishing its semifinal win ... and preparing for more success in Saturday's gold medal game.