The United States and Canada are prepared to renew acquaintances in preliminary-round action of the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship at the Malmo Isstadion in Sweden on Tuesday (11:30 a.m. ET, NHLN-US, NHL.com).
The top seed in Group A is on the line, meaning a quarterfinal-round match Thursday with the fourth-place team in Group B is at stake.
The United States enters atop Group A with three victories and nine points, outscoring its opposition 19-4. Canada needs to defeat the U.S. in regulation to gain the necessary three points to grab the top seed. Canada has two regulation wins and one shootout loss for seven points.
"I think right now the guys know we're playing for the top seed and it doesn't matter if we're playing Canada or the Czechs or Sweden … that's our No. 1 focus," U.S. coach Don Lucia told NHL.com. "I think it'll be good that we play a good, quality team like Canada because it will help us get ready for that quarterfinal game when it's single elimination.
"Playing a good opponent with high-end talent and full of first-round draft picks (11) means there's little margin for error. Every player must be on top of his game."
It's hard to argue with the fact the Americans certainly have been on the top of their game through their first three games. Lucia's group ranks first on the power play (57.9 percent efficiency) with 11 goals on 19 chances, and ranks fourth on the penalty kill (70.0 percent), allowing three goals in 10 times shorthanded.
"Our preparation is going to be huge in this because they have a good specialty teams too, and a lot of talent but we'll do our homework," U.S. forward Nicolas Kerdiles told NHL.com. "It'll be a great atmosphere. The game is sold out and everybody will be watching it back home since it's great tradition. I know we're excited but we'll prepare like any other game, get some rest and be ready."
The last time the teams met was the semifinal round of the 2013 WJC in Russia when the United States scored a 5-1 victory en route to winning the gold medal. In 40 WJC games, the Americans have beaten the Canadians seven times (three ties). Still, it's interesting to note that among the 16 games since 2000, 10 have been decided by one goal, five have required overtime and two ended in shootouts.
The last three wins for the U.S. against Canada have come in the medal round. In 2004 (4-3 victory) and 2010 (6-5 in overtime) it was the gold medal game, in addition to the U.S. win in last year's semifinals.
Prior to its loss against the United States in 2013, Canada had won eight of the past nine games between the teams at the World Juniors. Canada's record streak of 14 consecutive medals at the WJC (five gold, six silver, three bronze) ended last year with an overtime loss against Russia in the bronze-medal game.
The United States has gotten goals from 12 different players, including defensemen Will Butcher (two goals, four points), Jaccob Slavin (one goal), Matthew Grzelcyk (two goals, team-high six points) and Steven Santini (one goal). Leading the way on offense have been Vincent Hinostroza (three goals, five points), Kerdiles (one goal, five points), Riley Barber (three goals, four points) and Andrew Copp (five assists). Jack Eichel, 17, also has done his share with one goal and four points. Copp, a Winnipeg Jets prospect, and Eichel, a top prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft, have been dominant in the faceoff circle.
"Jack Eichel has some major offensive talent and he's been pretty sound defensively," Lucia said. "One of the things we were worried about entering the tournament was hiding him in our own zone but we haven't had to do that. He's stepped up and has done a good job at both ends."
The goaltending has been good for the U.S., with Jon Gillies (two wins, 2.00 goals-against average, .925 save percentage) and Anthony Stolarz. Stolarz made 15 saves in an 8-0 shutout against Germany on Saturday in his only action so far. Gillies will start against Canada on New Year's Eve.
Canada coach Brent Sutter will counter with goalie Zachary Fucale, who made 19 saves in a 5-3 victory against Slovakia in his first appearance at the WJC on Monday. Fucale is 19-7-1 with a 2.51 GAA and .902 save percentage for the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Jake Paterson, who was in goal for the shootout loss to the Czech Republic on Saturday, has a 3.36 GAA and .868 save percentage.
The Canadians have been led on offense by Anthony Mantha (four goals, nine points), Jonathan Drouin (two goals, seven points) and Sam Reinhart (two goals, five points), who is considered to be a top-five pick for the 2014 draft. Curtis Lazar, an Ottawa Senators prospect who has earned tons of ice time in every situation for Sutter and could be considered Canada's best player to this point, has one goal and four points.
Nicolas Petan, a 2013 Jets draft pick scored twice against Slovakia on Monday and has three goals and four points in the tournament.
Forward Connor McDavid, the first 16-year-old to earn a roster spot on the Canadian National Junior Team since Sidney Crosby in 2004 and the sixth ever, has three assists and seven shots on goal.
The game will also mark the return of defenseman Griffin Reinhart to the Canadian lineup. Reinhart, Sam's older brother, sat out Canada's first three games to finish a four-game suspension handed down at the 2013 WJC. Drafted by the New York Islanders in the first round (No. 4) in 2012, the 6-foot-3.25, 212-pound left-handed shot will bring physicality and experience to the blue line.