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StarPhoenix article (U.S. brings cruising Canucks back down to earth)

January 2 2010 at 4:35 PM
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N. W. Bruin  (Login NW_Bruin_GM)

U.S. brings cruising Canucks back down to earth

By Kevin Mitchell, StarPhoenix

January 2, 2010

More Images » Canada's Jordan Eberle celebrates after scoring in a shootout against Team USA at the 2010 IIHF world junior hockey championship Thursday in Saskatoon. Canada defeated the United States 5-4 to move directly into the semifinal.Photograph by: Shaun Best, ReutersAfter a week of happy strolls through goal-strewn scoresheets, Canada was forced to grit its teeth Thursday.

Team Canada, which dominated opponents to a ludicrous degree through three games at the world junior hockey championship, suddenly absorbed all the adversity they could handle during a 5-4 shootout victory over the United States.

They trailed the USA 4-2 halfway through the third period and faced a 10-minute pop quiz on the intricacies of high-pressure hockey. Jordan Eberle, then Alex Pietrangelo -- the latter with 4:15 to play -- scored the goals that tied things up. Three Canada goals during the shootout, to two for the U.S., propelled Canada into Sunday's semifinal . . . and left them with the sense that this team isn't invincible, after all.

The rest of the junior hockey world took notice, too.

"Everyone talks about how Canada's untouchable," said USA forward Danny Kristo, who netted his team's fourth goal. "But we were right there with them tonight. We're up two goals. Maybe we make a couple of plays there, we're going to come away with the victory. But we're right there with that team, so hopefully we get another crack at them."

That crack, if it comes, would happen in the tournament final on Tuesday. But both teams have to get there, first -- and, after Canada's close call, that's not a sure thing anymore. Not like it was 30 seconds before Thursday's faceoff, when Canada was still a wrecking-ball team with round-robin scores of 16-0, 6-0 and 8-2 in their wake.

But the patsies are out of the way now, and this is when things get tough. Thursday's game, the last of the round-robin, was vital for Canada -- they needed to be tested before getting into the playoffs against teams who know how to skate, shoot and pass with similar proficiency.

They also needed somebody to expose weaknesses and sloppy areas, and the Americans did just that. The USA staged numerous odd-man rushes, created turnovers, and made life miserable for the host team through most of three periods.

"I didn't think our performance was very good today," summarized Eberle. "We have to work on things, including our power play."

Better for Canada that realization comes now, and not during Sunday's semifinal.

The loss stings the U.S., which blew a 3-0 lead during a loss to Canada last New Year's Eve. But it also encourages them.

Canada, meanwhile, showed they can handle tough times. Many people no doubt wrote them off when they trailed 4-2 in the third period, with talented Jack Campbell manning the American goal.

But, to their credit, they pulled it off. Two gutsy goals kept them alive, and when they needed clutch performances in the shootout, Eberle, Nazem Kadri and Brandon Kozun did just that. Canadian goalie Jake Allen blocked Jordan Schroeder's last-ditch effort to prolong the shootout, and the place went crazy.

Canada passed their test -- but they know more of those lie in their immediate future.

"We never were in a position where we had to come back and we had to fight through a real tough team," Canadian coach Willie Desjardins said of the round-robin's first three games. "We knew that was coming tonight. We hoped it wouldn't, but we knew it would be."

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