OTTAWA – Canada’s team was still a mystery after three games at the world junior hockey championship.
The question still lingered as to how Canada (3-0) would perform when tested to its limits, because it hadn’t happened yet.
All should be revealed Wednesday against tournament co-favourite U.S. in the final round-robin game of Pool A.
The top team in the pool gets a bye to Saturday’s semifinal and two days of rest, while the runner-up has to get there via a quarter-final win Friday.
Russia beat Slovakia 8-1 in Pool B and will play Sweden for first place in that group Wednesday. Czech Republic advanced to the quarter-final with a 6-0 win over Germany, which was knocked into the relegation round.
Head coach Pat Quinn was still waiting for a goaltender to prove himself as Canada’s starter. He had yet to decide whether Dustin Tokarski of the Spokane Chiefs or Chet Pickard of the Tri-City Americans would play Wednesday.
Tokarski made 20 saves in the tournament opener versus the Czechs, but let in a questionable goal late in the game. Pickard faced a total of 23 shots over the next two games and gave up a power-play goal.
“In this tournament, certainly neither one has been tested,” Quinn acknowledged Tuesday. “In the opening game, I think young Tokarski didn’t concentrate all the way through it, so I don’t know what to expect at this point.
“We’re going to have to go off our scouting reports and say ‘you’ve got this game’ and let’s see where it goes. That’s probably what we’ll do.”
A solid outing versus the U.S. would likely solidify the starting job for the medal round, so both goalies want to be in their country’s biggest game of the tournament so far.
“I know me and Dustin would be lying if we said we didn’t want to play,” Pickard said. “We want to play every game if we can.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere because we both know a lot of guys on the other team and Canada against the U.S., it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Quinn said prior to Monday’s 5-1 win over Germany there was a lot he didn’t know about his goaltenders yet. That sentiment could be extended to the rest of the team, although the skaters’ abilities and talents have been more evident.
Canada’s power-play is clicking at a spectacular rate of 60 per cent. Tavares, Canada’s scoring leader, is lethal around the net when his team has a man advantage. The possible No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft has scored four of his five goals a man up and set up numerous power-play goals for teammates.
After outscoring the opposition 28-2 over the first three games, it was difficult to gauge how the Canadians would react if they trailed by one or more goals, or got into major penalty trouble, or if the opposition actually mustered a sustained attack.
“Gear-wise, I think we’re probably on in third right now,” defenceman Ryan Ellis said. “We’ve been playing average hockey. That Germany game we weren’t playing too well, moving our feet or playing as a team as well as we wanted to.
“If we’re going to beat the Americans, we have to kick it into a couple more gears and we’re going to have to come out a lot hungrier and a lot stronger.”
The U.S., led by its big forward line of James van Riemsdyk, Colin Wilson and Jordan Schroeder, is capable of putting Canada in those situations. For the first time, Canada will face a country that can take the game to them.
“They’re a skilled team like us,” Tavares said. “They’ve got that big line and we’ve got to keep them under control.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re playing physical as well and we don’t give them time and space because they can make things happen, unlike maybe the teams we’ve already played.”
The U.S. has more six-footers up front than Canada and the Americans on average are heavier.
“I don’t remember the last time Canada was intimidated by anyone,” declared defenceman P.K. Subban.
The Americans’ road in the Pool A hasn’t been particularly difficult either, even though they had to hold off a charging Czech team 4-3. They’re certainly talented enough to win the title, but the country hasn’t been able to close out big games in recent years.
They’ve played for a medal the last six years and won two, including the gold in 2004.
For this generation of Canadian players, the rivalry with the U.S. is as heated – if not more – than the country’s established rivalry with Russia, although the players are aware their country has a long history with the latter that goes back to the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.
While Canada has played Russia in the world junior final five of the last seven years, Canada’s shootout win over the U.S. in the 2007 semifinal and the devastating collapse against the Americans in the 2004 final are vivid memories in these Canadian players’ minds.
“The U.S., right across the board is always going to be a big rivalry,” said the 17-year-old Ellis. “Their program has picked up a lot in the last few years and they’ve been playing really well the last few tournaments.
“They always seem to be matched up against us in semis and finals and all that kind of stuff. That rivalry just kind of intensifies each year.”
Tokarski has three Spokane teammates on the U.S. squad: forwards Mitch Wahl, Drayson Bowman and Tyler Johnson. Eric Tangradi is Subban’s teammate in Belleville.
Bragging rights in their respective club dressing rooms are on the line. Both Tokarski and Subban say they haven’t trash-talked with their American teammates via e-mails or text-messaging during the tournament.
Goaltenders Thomas McCollum and Josh Unice are well-known to the Canadian players from Ontario, as they play for Guelph and Kitchener respectively.
Notes – Canada is 27-5-3 all-time versus the U.S. at the world junior hockey championship . . . Prime Minister Stephen Harper and son Ben, a hockey player, visited the Canadian team’s dressing room Tuesday and had their picture taken with the team.