MALMO, SWEDEN – Canada has been searching for its identity at the World Junior Hockey Championship and they may have found it: underdogs.
Consensus among Canadian players is that they enter Tuesday's first-place showdown with the Americans as the clear underdogs following a shootout loss to the Czech Republic on Saturday and a white-knuckle, come-from-behind win against Slovakia on Monday.
"It's probably one of this first times we're the underdogs in this and they're really good," said defenceman Mathew Dumba, loaned to Team Canada by the Minnesota Wild. "They're a great team and we've got to be ready for them."
"Oh for sure, I think we're definitely the underdogs," agreed forward Bo Horvat. "They've been playing well all tournament and won all of their games so far. It should be a good test."
"I think, maybe, we're a little bit of the underdogs," said Jonathan Drouin, Canada's top-line centre. "They won last year, they're 3-0 so we have to get off to a good start and play our own game and not watch them play.”
The message from Canadian players was remarkably consistent. You almost got the sense they were happy to enter the New Year's Eve clash considered the weaker team and Nic Petan, who scored the winner in Monday's 5-3 victory over Slovakia, admitted as much.
"Yeah, definitely, it makes us work harder," he said.
Canada as an underdog in hockey?
A rare occurrence, especially at the World Juniors, but considering the sky-high expectations facing these teenagers, who can really blame them for trying to shift the pressure to the Americans? Only 16-year-old Connor McDavid, Canada's youngest player, balked at the idea that his group was an underdog.
"I don't know," the Erie Otters sensation said. "I think a lot of people are viewing us the underdogs. I'm not necessarily sure that's how we feel. We're confident in our abilities."
The defending champion Americans tried to brand themselves as underdogs entering the event. Head coach Don Lucia noted they'd need big-time goaltending from Jon Gillies every night and would rely on a grind-it-out style to win some close, low-scoring games. Of course, the United States promptly cruised through the first three games of the tournament outscoring the Germans, Czechs and Slovaks 19-4.
"We're not a star-studded team," insists Lucia. "I think the bottom line is our guys understand what our identity is and keep with that identity."
That blue-collar identity that values hard work as much as skill is the same one Canadian head coach Brent Sutter has sought to install with his group. But the Americans, who have had 12 different players score, seem to have had an easier time adapting to the brand.
"Anybody who asks about this team I tell them I don't think we really have any superstars," said forward Adam Erne. "We're a group that works really hard and really wants to win and I think that's what it takes in this tournament: different guys every game."
DROUIN FACES ERNE FOR FIRST TIME SINCE CONCUSSION
Erne is at the heart of this year's rivalry game, because of what happened earlier this month in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Erne, who plays for the Quebec Remparts, leveled Halifax's Drouin with a hit from behind. Drouin sustained the first concussion of his career on the play. Afterwards, Erne suggested the third overall pick in last June's NHL draft may have made matters worse by trying to draw a penalty on the play and embellishing what happened.
"It happened so long ago. It's not a big deal right now. I'm not focused on that. I'm focused on the upcoming game," said Erne, who reached out to Drouin after the game via text.
"Everybody knows that he's a good player and we were drafted by the same team [Tampa Bay] so we're going to have to get along so that's just how it's going to have to be. It's in the past. It happened. It's hockey so let's move on from there."
Erne wasn't suspended for the hit and Drouin refused to comment on that decision. But the 18-year-old said winning on Tuesday would be the best revenge.
"Yeah, for sure," Drouin said, "I don't think I'm going to go for a cheap-shot on Adam. It's not the Q here. We have to win and it's going to be a team game."
MCDAVID vs. EICHEL IN 2015 NHL DRAFT PREVIEW
Erne against Drouin is not the only juicy subplot in the Canada-USA rivalry these days. Tuesday's game will also feature two of hockey's brightest young stars going head-to-head, specifically: McDavid against American Jack Eichel.
Both are expected to go very high in the 2015 NHL draft with the Canadian considered the odds-on favourite to go No. 1.
"Yeah, you know, it's nice to play against him, but I don't really think about playing against him," said Eichel, a Boston University recruit. "It's not a one-on-one battle we're going to be playing in. It's a team game where the United States is going to be playing Team Canada. I'm not going to be playing Connor."
McDavid echoed that sentiment.
"It's not really about me and him. It's about Canada versus the Americans. That's it. I know he's on the team. He's a big part of their team. He's a good player and he'll be a big part of the game."
McDavid has struggled to make his mark on the tournament. He was benched after taking two penalties against the Czech Republic and started the next game against Slovakia as Canada's 13th forward before earning more ice time in the third period.
Eichel, meanwhile, has been a solid presence in the American top-six forward group notching a goal and three assists.
"I couldn't believe how young he actually is," said Team USA captain Riley Barber. "He's a big player, strong and doesn't really look his age."
"His all-around game is quick, so fast," said line-mate Ryan Hartman. "I've been lucky enough to be playing with him the last couple games now. He knows where he is out on the ice and where all the players are at."
Gillies, Barber and Hartman are the three returning players on the American roster. Drouin, defenceman Griffin Reinhart and goalie Jake Paterson are the veterans on the Canadian side. Paterson will be Zach Fucale's backup on Tuesday while Reinhart will make his 2014 tournament debut after missing the first three games with a suspension.
RIVALRY IS 'SOMETHING SPECIAL'
Last year's semifinal showdown remains very much on the minds of the players.
"It's a motivation," said Drouin. "We lost 5-1. It was a hard loss for me. This year, I want to battle back and make sure I don't lose again against the Americans."
"It was one of the worst feelings I've had in hockey for sure," admitted Reinhart.
"Whether they played in it or not everyone on both teams was watching," said Hartman. "Everyone's going to be riled up and ready to go."
Indeed, Canada versus the United States is always an emotional encounter. When you add in all the subplots listed above and the fact the game will decide who wins Group A, well, it's easy to get pumped up.
"It's something special," said Erne with a smile. "I mean, I've been watching since I can remember so it's going to be a real honour to play in it and I'm real excited."
"I've played in a few U.S.-Canada games and they're always intense," said Eichel. "I know our team's looking forward to it and I imagine they are as well."
"It's unbelievable," said McDavid, "especially this New Year's Eve game. It has been quite a tradition for the past couple years and I usually never missed watching so it will be a lot of fun for sure."
"I expect a lot of compete out of them," said Barber, who's tied for the team lead with three goals. "It should be a really, really fun game to watch."