Canadian junior hockey head coach Willie Desjardins wasn't taking any chances yesterday.
With a tough game against the United States coming up on New Year's Eve, he gave his players the day off, rather than skate them in practice.
They've certainly earned the break.
Canada has hammered the competition in its first three games, beating Latvia 16-0, Switzerland 6-0 and Slovakia 8-2. But the Americans have also looked strong in beating Switzerland 3-0, Slovakia 7-3 and Latvia 12-1.
Last year, the North American rivals met in an identical situation in Ottawa. Both came into their final round-robin contest undefeated, with a bye to the semi-finals on the line. Canada topped the U.S. 7-4.
"First and foremost, it's a berth to the semi-finals," said team captain Patrice Cormier, who was a part of Canada's gold-medal-winning 2009 team. "It was a good rivalry, it was a good game and for the fans, it's exciting.
"But we just want to win because we need that win to go to the semi-finals."
Six Canadian players are back from the 2009 team.
Cormier, Colten Teubert, Ryan Ellis, Alex Pietrangelo, Jordan Eberle and Stefan Della Rovere are the veteran Canadians, while the U.S. has three returning players in Tyler Johnson, Danny Kristo and Jordan Schroeder.
"Our returning guys went through that last year, and I think we can share that with the other players," Cormier said.
While not as seasoned as the Canadian side, the Americans aren't exactly unknown.
Team captain Derek Stepan, a second-round draft pick of the NHL's New York Rangers in 2008, is tied for the tournament scoring lead with eight points. Three other U.S. players were taken in first round of the 2009 entry draft: Schroeder (Vancouver Canucks, 22nd overall), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers, 19th) and Kyle Palmieri (Anaheim Ducks, 26th).
Seven of the American players were part of the U.S. squad that beat Canada 2-1 in the semi-finals and went on to win gold at the world under-18 championship this past April, including Jeremy Morin and Jerry D'Amigo, who scored against Canada.
"It's a little different type of team," said Schroeder, who is the lone American to have played in three world junior tournaments. "Last year, we had a little more skill up front, and this year I think we got a little more grit and grind-it-out type of guys."
Canada has won the junior championship for five consecutive years. The Americans have not earned a medal since winning bronze in 2007, and have captured gold only once. In 2004, they came back from a 3-1 deficit to top Canada 4-3 in the final.
"It's something that we're proud of," said American coach Dean Blais, of the Canada-U.S. rivalry. "We've taken our game to a level of respectability, when 10 to 12 years ago, we were fighting to be in the top eight."
Since the American triumph over the Canadians at the world juniors in 2004, Canada has won all five of the encounters between the teams.
"We're going to have to come in with a lot of heart and determination to win this game," Schroeder said.
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