The United States’ recipe for beating Canada and winning a gold medal at the world junior hockey championship was simple.
“We played Canadian hockey,” said U.S. head coach Dean Blais after an exhilarating 6-5 overtime victory before 15,171 at the Credit Union Centre on Tuesday. “We played gritty. We blocked shots. We back-checked hard. We had a tryout camp.
“You learn from the best, and it’s not an accident that you guys won five straight gold medals. It’s not an accident that you put guys in the National Hockey League.
“I’m from International Falls, Minnesota [on the Ontario border]. I’m real close to how the Canadians play…I didn’t want a bunch of Fancy Dans who wouldn’t play both ends and who were cocky and arrogant. I didn’t have that team.”
He sure didn’t.
Despite being staggered by a pair of Jordan Eberle goals in the final three minutes to force overtime, the Americans were not rattled. Several players said getting into the dressing room helped their cause, no matter how much momentum was against them, and the result was a halt to Canada’s run of five straight world junior gold medals.
“It was one of the best games I've ever played in,” U.S. captain Derek Stepan said. “We went into the locker room and we had all the leaders sit down and say ‘The last 60 [minutes] are done, we've got to regroup.’”
Defenceman John Carlson scored the winner less than five minutes into the extra period. He netted his second goal of the game on a two-on-one rush after an Alex Pietrangelo shot was stopped by U.S. goaltender Jack Campbell at the other end.
Blais said he so feared a shootout that he was willing to ice four forwards in overtime, which would have been his second bravest decision on the night.
The coach made an extraordinarily gutsy call to replace starting goaltender Mike Lee after he allowed three goals on seven shots, despite a 3-3 score midway through the second period. Campbell was sensational, stopping 32 shots, and was only beaten by Eberle’s late heroics.
“It broke my heart to pull him,” Blais said. “I saw he was a little bit off tonight and I didn’t want to wait.”
Willie Desjardins, on the other hand, waited. The Canadian head coach yanked starter Jake Allen, who was clearly off his game, after Stepan scored early in the third period to make it 5-3.
“The third [goal] was a point shot he didn’t see and maybe I could’ve done something then,” a recriminating Desjardins said. “After the fourth and fifth ones went in, I had to make a move. It was just one of those [decisions] that didn’t work out for us.”
Allen was replaced by Martin Jones, who made every save until the overtime. Chris Kreider, Jordan Schroeder and Jerry D’Amigo also scored for the Americans. Luke Adam, Greg Nemisz and Taylor Hall had the other Canadian tallies.
Down 5-3 in the late stages, Eberle scored on the power play and the stage was set.
Canada beat the U.S. with improbable comebacks in their last two meetings at the world junior championship, including a 5-4 shootout victory on Dec. 31. The Canadians also prevailed on New Year’s Eve in 2008, erasing a three-goal U.S. lead en route to a stupefying win at Ottawa’s ScotiaBank Place.
Eberle, meanwhile, has become a national hero by scoring enormous goals at pressure-packed moments. He scored the game-tying and game-winning goals in a ridiculous comeback against Russia last year, a key moment in the cardiac Canadians fifth straight championship.
The Regina native became Canada’s second all-time leading scorer at the world juniors, trailing Eric Lindros, and cemented his legacy as one of the best under-20 players to ever wear the Maple Leaf. He was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
“We came to this tournament with one goal in mind,” said the future Edmonton Oiler. “And we needed one more.”
Blais said that the ice re-surfacing between the third period and overtime helped, presumably because it allowed the Americans’ superior speed to take hold once again. The Canadians were badly outplayed in the first 30 minutes, mostly because their lumbering defencemen couldn’t contain the blazing American forwards.
Canada was playing without shutdown defenceman Travis Hamonic (separated shoulder), and Pietrangelo, named the tournament’s best rearguard, exacerbated the problem by taking a checking-from-behind penalty, which carries a 10-minute misconduct, late in the first period.
Stepan and D’Amigo struck for goals just two minutes apart early in the third period, which led to Allen’s benching. The fifth goal, which came after the goaltender couldn’t contain a soft dump-in on goal, and allowed a juicy rebound to the slot, was particularly deflating for the Saskatoon crowd.
But as often happens after a contest this entertaining, it didn’t take long for the spectators to show their appreciation. The crowd began cheering just seconds after the winning goal, and during the medal presentation ceremony, a spontaneous rendition of O Canada erupted.
That’s how this tournament normally ends: with 22 young men, arms locked, belting out a voice-cracking version of the anthem. It happened again on Tuesday, only this time it was The Star Spangled Banner.
And it happened because they played Canadian hockey. Better than the Canadians.