It was the kind of effort Malcolm Subban was hoping for on the biggest stage of his international career for the Canadian National Junior Team at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
With all eyes squarely on Subban entering his Group B showdown against the United States on Sunday at Ufa Arena, the the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Boston Bruins prospect turned in his best performance on the way to a 2-1 victory. Subban made 36 saves.
"Coming in, I felt really good and I just wanted to have a really good game," Subban told TSN. "I felt really confident, so that helped a lot."
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ryan Strome connected for first-period goals to provide all the scoring Canada needed in support. Subban, sporting an unspectacular 3.00 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in victories over Germany and Slovakia, was flawless throughout and was named Canada's player of the game.
"It's a lot easier to get up for these games than the first two," Subban said.
Nugent-Hopkins, Canada's captain, had high praise for Subban.
"[Subban was] outstanding," he told TSN. "There's not much else you can say there. He was there from the first minute to the last, and with goaltending like that, you get that much more comfortable up front."
The victory sets up a first-place showdown in Group B on Monday against Russia. Canada is first in the group with three regulation victories and nine points; Russia is second with two regulation wins and one victory in overtime for eight points. Canada coach Steve Spott will also have forwards J.C. Lipon and Boone Jenner back in the lineup for the game -- both players were serving suspensions against the United States.
"Having Boone and J.C. back gives us that energy we'll need and we'll need it to step up for Russia," Spott told TSN.
Meanwhile, if the United States can defeat Slovakia on Monday, it would also gain a berth into the WJC medal round by solidifying third place in Group B.
"I think we'll be fine … it's just one game and winner moves on so I think that's the way we'll look at it," American goalie John Gibson told NHL.com. "We'll put what happened behind us and just worry about advancing. If we advance, then anything can happen. We just have to win against Slovakia."
U.S. coach Phil Housley remains confident about his team's chances against a tough Slovakian team.
"Against Slovakia, we have destiny in our own hands and I like that," he told NHL.com. "I like the way we played [the past two games] and I think getting a goal early would spark our team. If you get new life, and win the right games in this tournament, anything can happen. We understand the ramifications of this next game, but I think our guys will be ready."
The United States had pulled to within 2-1 in the third period when Jacob Trouba scored his team-leading third goal of the tournament. After Gibson had just denied Ty Rattie with a sensational left-pad save off a two-on-one shorthanded breakout, Trouba collected a cross-ice feed from Alex Galchenyuk and ultimately batted at a loose puck that found the back of the net at the 11:02 mark.
Subban then made a huge save off Ryan Hartman less than 30 seconds later to keep Canada ahead. It was at that point that the momentum the United States had gained was suddenly lost thanks to five straight penalties, including hit-to-the-head infractions to captain Jake McCabe and forward Ryan Hartman. The U.S. killed off two sequences in which Canada had a 5-on-3 advantage, including one for a full two minutes.
"I think those 5-on-3's might have sucked a little juice out of us, but our guys sucked it up and did a great job penalty killing to put us in a position to tie it up," Housley said.
The Americans totaled 30 minutes in penalties, including a pair of 10-minute misconducts to Hartman and McCabe, following the Trouba goal.
"I thought some of the calls were questionable, personally, but they're called and we couldn't do anything about it," Housley said. "But we killed them off, which was a valiant effort by our penalty killers and John Gibson had a great game for us."
Gibson, who is 1-2 with a 1.52 GAA and .950 save percentage in three games for the Americans, was asked if it was any consolation to be named his team's player of the game against Canada.
"Kind of … but I would have traded it in for a win any day of the week," Gibson told NHL.com.
Subban, whose save percentage increased to .925 after his effort against the U.S., made a few big stops late in the game when the U.S. had a power play and eventual two-man advantage after pulling Gibson with 1:07 remaining. Galchenyuk also had an opportunity to tee up a blast during a mad scramble as time was running down, but the puck hopped over his stick. Subban, who stars for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, made 10 saves in the first, 15 in the second and 11 in the third.
"The key ingredients were our penalty kill and goaltending," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Both of those aspects of the game were fantastic, and we wouldn't have won the game without them."
Nugent-Hopkins leads all scorers at the WJC with eight points, including three goals.
Housley realizes his team needs to provide Gibson with more support.
"He's keeping us in games and giving us a chance to win," he said. "We just need a little more goals to support his play."
Nugent-Hopkins opened the scoring for Canada with his third goal of the tournament off a quick release from the inner right circle 7:13 into the period. Following an offensive-zone draw, Jonathan Huberdeau controlled the puck along the half-boards before feeding an uncovered Nugent-Hopkins, who ripped a shot that beat Gibson low to the blocker side.
Canada extended the lead to 2-0 when Strome followed up a rebound of a Brett Ritchie wrap-around attempt at 18:19. Strome beat U.S. defenseman Seth Jones to the puck in front of Gibson following Ritchie's big surge behind the American net.
Despite allowing two goals in the opening period, Gibson did make three huge stops to keep the game within reach for the United States. He stopped Kitchener Rangers teammate Ryan Murphy off a semi-breakaway attempt, denied 2013 draft-eligible prospect Jonathan Drouin on a breakaway, and turned away Mark Scheifele with a sensational left-glove snare in front.
"[Ryan Murphy] was kind of on a 3-on-1, so I was expecting a pass but he tried to go five-hole," Gibson said. "I had my stick down, so it wasn't too bad."
Subban also make a few scintillating stops, including one off a breakaway attempt by U.S. forward John Gaudreau with 9:15 remaining.
In the absence of forward Lipon, Spott opted to have Nathan MacKinnon on right wing with Strome and Jonathan Drouin on the second line. Brett Ritchie was inserted on the fourth line with Anthony Camara and a rotating center. Rattie was placed on right wing with Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault.
Canada has won nine of the last 10 meetings against the United States at the World Juniors, with five of the last six games decided by one goal.
In other action at the WJC on Sunday in Ufa, Finland survived a huge scare from feisty Switzerland by overcoming a two-goal deficit to score a 5-4 shootout victory in Group A competition.
After spotting Switzerland a 2-0 lead in the first period, Finland received goals from Calgary Flames prospect Markus Granlund and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Teuvo Teravainen to even the contest in the second. Switzerland regained a two-goal lead in the third on goals by Alessio Bertaggia at 1:08 and Dario Simion at 11:30.
Finland again rallied as Teravainen scored his second of the game, on the power-play, at 13:06 before Granlund struck for his second with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker with just 1:40 remaining in the third.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale