Going into Monday night's world junior hockey championship semi-final, the Canadians knew the one sure thing that would beat them was a bad early goal.
Given the uneven work of their defence and goaltenders and the fact Team USA had the better goaltender leading up to the showdown, the Canadians knew they had to even the equation with a strong start. So they put the old theory the best defence is a good offence to the test and knocked the Americans back on their heels in the first five minutes with a relentless display of physical, fore-checking hockey.
Backed by a loud sellout crowd that was almost all Canadian, the Americans found themselves under siege on their own turf and surrendered that all-important first goal two minutes and 38 seconds into the game, which paved the way to a 4-1 win for Canada and a spot in Wednesday's gold-medal game against Russia. It is the first time in the nine years since the tournament adopted this format that two quarter-finalists, rather than a team with a bye to the semi-final, made the championship game.
The importance of that first goal cannot be under-emphasized. Throughout the tournament, Canadian head coach Dave Cameron was questioned about how to combat his team's habit of starting slowly and having to fight back from an early deficit. Part of that was the goaltending, which was average at best, and the defence, which looked increasingly slow and mistake-prone against quick teams like Sweden.
"Our starts haven't been the best," said Canadian forward Ryan Johansen, who was a force on a line with fellow bruisers Zack Kassian and Marcus Foligno. "We wanted to make sure we came out playing our game and not get fancy."
There was nothing fancy at all, just a lot of smashing people into the glass.
Then a little luck saw the Americans caught in a bad defence change, which allowed Canadian forward Curtis Hamilton to sneak in front of the net to take a long pass. He put in his own rebound to ignite the crowd.
Eleven minutes later, Quinton Howden deflected a centring pass by Brett Connolly to make it 2-0 for Canada. That took much of the pressure off goaltender Mark Visentin, whose work up to Monday did not inspire confidence.
Visentin's teammates made sure that pressure stayed off by keeping the heat squarely on the Americans, who did not react well. This talented group, which had eight players back from its championship team from last year, spent much of the night engaging in pratfalls in its own end.
"There's not much to say - they brought their A game," Campbell said.
By the time Johansen scored a power-play goal in the second period to put Canada up 3-0, the issue was not in doubt. Kassian scored the fourth Canadian goal in the third period. Chris Brown scored for the U.S midway through the third period.
"We knew the importance of this game from the first second to the last second," defenceman Jared Cowen said. "We never stopped. We wanted to establish our momentum and never stop."
BENEFITS OF THE TOUGHER POOL
More than one expert predicted the relatively easier ride Team USA had in the preliminary round would hurt them in the semi-final against Canada. The toughest team the Americans faced in Group A was the Finns, while Canada had to contend with the Swedes and the Russians, who will be their opponents in the gold-medal game.
One NHL scout said he saw the same thing hurt Canada a year ago when the U.S. won the gold against it in overtime. "The Americans didn't have to beat anybody and now they have to play Canada," the scout said. "It doesn't help you get ready."
Before the game, there were many questions about the Canadian defence. It looked slow and tentative in games against Sweden and Switzerland and was not overly impressive against the Russians and Czechs.
However, backed by the raucous almost-all Canadian crowd, Cowen, Ryan Ellis, Calvin de Haan, Erik Gudbranson and company played their best game of the tournament to make life easier for Visentin. The U.S. forwards were knocked off the puck before they could get near him.
It was no surprise the majority of the sellout crowd of 18,690 at HSBC Arena was Canadian. But the size of the majority certainly was. Barely any Team USA colours were visible among the sea of red and white Canadian team sweaters. And even though the scoreboard video operators and public-address announcer gave it the good old home-team try when it came to rousing support for the American team, the Canadians easily drowned it all out.
The din that greeted the arrival of the Canadian team before the opening faceoff and held up through the first five minutes of a high-paced first period undoubtedly played a part in the Americans looking like a timid road team in their own building.
By the second period, with the Canadians ahead 3-0, their fans were chanting, "This is our house."
"In the dressing room before the game we were all excited," Cowen said. "Obviously, the crowd was a big part of that."
A special visitor dropped by the Canadians' dressing room following their win over the Swiss in the quarter-finals on Sunday to talk to them about their showdown with Team USA. Steve Yzerman, the general manager of the Canadian gold-medal men's Olympic team, told the players to enjoy the moment, enjoy their teammates but know they would face adversity and have to deal with it.
"It was pretty neat, seeing a guy like that talk to you," Howden said.