When the Canada and U.S. tangle at 9 tonight, they’ll reignite a rivalry that offers pretty much everything a sports fan could want — history, excitement, emotion and incredibly high stakes.
When these two teams opened the FIL World Championships on July 10 in Commerce City, Colo., Canada jumped out to a 3-0 lead while holding the U.S. scoreless for the game’s first 25 minutes. An eight-goal outburst over the next 20 minutes created separation from which the Canadians couldn’t rebound.
In the intervening seven days, Canada won five games, allowing a total of 24 goals. The U.S. has won its five games by an overall score of 97-19. It’s clear that Team USA is the favorite heading into the gold-medal game and that a case needs to be made why Canada can win its second world games in the past three tournaments. Here's a look at some of the big storylines heading into tonight.
Approaching the past
Canada has several vets that have been on this stage before — Kevin Crowley, Jordan Hall, Zack Greer and Matt Vinc, among others — but it’s clear that so much of this team’s mettle comes from Brodie Merrill and Geoff Snider. After Thursday’s win over the Iroquois in the semifinals, both were asked how much they thought about or spoke about the 2006 and ’10 world championships — applying the lessons learned from a monumental triumph and a disappointing narrow defeat.
They had different answers.
“None. Not at all,” Snider said. “This is a different team with different characters, a different challenge and path.”
Specifically addressing the legacy of Chris Sanderson and Kyle Miller, Merrill said, “The young guys understand how important [playing for those former teammates] is.”
The balance is about applying the lessons that helped Canada win in 2006 and figuring out the small areas that needed to be better to win in 2010, and working through both those over the last week to turn a three-goal loss on July 10 into a win on July 19.
Play to the goaltender’s strengths
Dillon Ward has stopped 62.7 percent of the shots he's seen in Canada’s first six games, fourth-best in the tournament and best in the elite Blue Division. He’s been excellent on shots from distance and particularly tough to beat up high.
The U.S. can bring shots from distance like no other team in the tournament, so setting Ward up to see bombs from Paul Rabil (Johns Hopkins), Dave Lawson and Garrett Thul all night isn’t an ideal strategy, but helping him get into a rhythm by avoiding giving up early shots in tight is paramount.
Figure out the pace
While an end-to-end game almost always favors the U.S., Canada should be aggressive in looking for transition opportunities because its offense in the first meeting struggled to generate easy chances. (And even against the Iroquois on Thursday, Canada benefited from several amazing plays from Curtis Dickson and Mark Matthews to get goals.)
Conversely, Canada can’t allow the U.S. to gain a distinct possession advantage because Merrill, who looked nearly out of gas at the end of the pool-play meeting vs. the Iroquois, will need to be as fresh as possible late in the game and the Canada defense might be short-handed depending on Jason Noble’s injury status.
Exactly how fast Canada wants to play will be a key determining factor in whether it is within striking distance late.