What better way to say goodbye to 2016 than to watch two of the most compelling games you’ll see all year?
Thanks to the hockey gods, nobody will have to fake a serious illness Saturday night to get out of going out for New Year’s Eve. If you’re a hockey fan, things might get going a little later than other years, but don’t worry, the cool kids pretty much wait until the advanced hours to get things started. And if you’re anywhere but in the Eastern Time zone, you’re golden.
Man, this is going to be good, so pull yourself up a chair. At 3:30 in Center of the Universe™, two of the three undefeated teams in the World Junior Championship will meet when Canada plays USA with first place in Group A and a more favorable quarterfinal opponent on the line. And just as that one is wrapping up, two of the hottest teams in NHL history will lock horns when the Columbus Blue Jackets put their 14-game winning streak on the line against the Minnesota Wild, who have won 12 in a row.
And there’s a pretty good chance that Thomas Chabot, Dylan Strome, Mitchell Stephens, Julien Gauthier and Matt Barzal of Canada have had this one circled on their calendars for quite some time. Because in the opening game of last year’s WJC, the Canadians dropped a 4-2 decision in the first game of the tournament to the Americans, who have Colin White and Charlie McAvoy returning. And seven of the players on the U.S. team were with the American team that whipped Canada 10-3 in the bronze medal game of the Under-18 World Championship last spring. Suffice to say old acquaintances will not be forgot.
“It’s the story that everyone wanted,” said Canadian captain Dylan Strome, who picked up four assists, two stitches and one fat lip in Canada’s 10-2 drubbing of Latvia Thursday night. “It’s going to be a good game with a storied rivalry with two teams that are not very fond of each other. I’m sure the Americans don’t like the Canadians too much and the Canadians don’t like the Americans very much.”
One thing the two teams have in common is that they’ve pretty much run roughshod over the competition in this tournament. They’ve both vanquished Russia, Slovakia and Latvia in their first three games, with Canada outscoring their opponents 20-5 and the Americans outpacing their opponents by a 14-5 count. Canada, in particular, has come a little better than advertised. The Canadians have scored a ton in this tournament so far, six more than the next highest-scoring team. As they did against Latvia, the Canadians are killing it on the power play, with eight of their 20 goals coming on the 14 times they’ve been playing with the man-advantage. (Canada also added a shorthander when Barzal opened the scoring against Latvia.)
The game should be a battle of Canada’s brute strength and power against USA’s skill and speed. And it should be intriguing. Of the skaters on both teams, Canada has an average height of 6-foot-1 and average weight of 187 pounds, while the U.S. checks in at 6-feet and 182 pounds. One inch and five pounds, on average, might not sound like much, but it can make a huge difference in front of the net and in 1-on-1 battles.
“It’s going to be great to be playing against (the U.S.). It’s going to be good preparation for getting to the playoffs,” said Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme. “I think we are ready for that. Mentally our guys are ready. Our guys were looking ahead a bit (against Latvia).”
One thing the Canadians have done so well in this tournament is go to the net and tip pucks out of the air. They’ve been relentless in their desire to get as close to the blue paint as possible and they’re making their presence felt there. It also helps that the defensemen have been doing a terrific job of getting pucks through traffic.
“Teams kind of get worn down when we go to the net so hard,” said Strome, who has been all around the net in the first three games. “We’ve been doing a good job of annoying the goalie and getting in his grill and we’re working hard and we’re getting rewarded for it.”
The Canada-USA rivalry is probably the most intense in hockey these days. Even after U.S. President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against Russia for its election hacking, the two teams couldn’t get much of a hate-on for each other in their game, which the Americans won 3-2. All kidding aside, the kids from Canada and USA start playing against each other shortly after they’re identified as elite players, which in North America happens roughly at the age of seven. And the thing about it is that the players who lose know they’re going to hear about it from the winners when they go back to their junior teams.
“We’ve played against those guys all while we were growing up,” Strome said. “It’s no fun to lose to those guys.”