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Group A top spot at stake for Canada, United States

by Mike G. Morreale / Columbus Blue Jackets

MONTREAL -- Canada and the United States each have heard their anthems played and had their flags raised following three successive victories at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Only one team will make it four straight on New Year's Eve when the North American rivals play Wednesday for top honors in Group A in the most anticipated match of preliminary-round play of the tournament at Bell Centre in Montreal (4 p.m. ET, NHLN-US,

Canada is the top seed in Group A with three regulation victories and nine points. The United States, with two regulation wins and one shootout win for eight points is second, but a win of any kind Wednesday would allow them to pass Canada for first place.

The winner and top seed in Group A will play a quarterfinal-round game against the fourth place team in Group B on Friday. The loser will earn the second seed and play the third-seeded team from Group B on Friday.

"When you play with the puck most of the time you're not in trouble, and when you look at both teams, we're two teams that make good plays with the puck," Canada coach Benoit Groulx said. "We're both puck-possession teams and we have a lot of strength on both teams. We can skate, we can make plays with the puck, we can control the puck, we have smart players.

"When you look at the matchup it's pretty even, so it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out."

The last time the United States beat Canada in preliminary-round action was Dec. 31, 1998, a 5-2 victory in Winnipeg. The last three wins for the U.S. against Canada have come in the playoff round. That includes wins in the gold-medal game in 2004 (4-3) and 2010 (6-5 in overtime); the U.S. also beat Canada 5-1 in the semifinals in 2013.

Canada leads the all-time series 28-3-1-6 and has outscored the United States 170-112; there also have been three ties. Of the 17 games since 2000, 11 have been decided by one goal and five have required overtime; twice the game has gone to a shootout. There was a 1-1 tie in 2000.

The game will feature plenty of intriguing storylines, starting with the head-to-head matchup of two of the top prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft, Canada's Connor McDavid (one goal, three points, 10 shots on goal) and Jack Eichel (one goal, two points, 14 shots) of the United States.

"I'm pretty excited," Eichel said. "It's always a lot of fun when you play Canada; it's always a battle. So we know it's going to be a tough 60 minutes; they're not going to hand it over to us. But we're really excited. New Year's Eve, you watch this game growing up, so getting to participate in it at the Bell Centre, it's going to be a great show."

Eichel, who serves as captain of the United States, isn't too concerned over the media-induced rivalry between him and McDavid.

"He's a good player but I'm not too worried about him right now, and I'm sure he's not too worried about me," Eichel said. "There's a lot bigger battle going on here. It's the United States versus Canada for the top seed in our bracket. I'm not worried about a 1-on-1 battle."

Each team also features a balanced scoring attack. Canada has 11 players with at least one goal, and five with at least two. Nicolas Petan (Winnipeg Jets) leads Canada with six points (one goal, five assists) and Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes), who has two goals, five points and a plus-4 rating, has been a tower of strength at both ends.

The United States has gotten goals from eight players, including a team-leading three goals and five points from center Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings). Larkin seemed to have good chemistry with Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres) in a 3-0 victory against Slovakia on Monday.

"They're a fast team and we're a fast team, so it should be a good game and I'm looking forward to it," Larkin said of facing Canada.

The only regular linemate alongside Eichel on the top line through three games has been right wing Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild). U.S. coach Mark Osiecki has had Chase De Leo (Winnipeg Jets), Milano and Tyler Motte (Chicago Blackhawks) play left wing on Eichel's line in the opening three games.

"Canada is tremendously deep up front, in goal and on defense," Osiecki said. "We need to show discipline, stay out of the [penalty] box, and will need to roll four lines."

Staying out of the box certainly would bode well for the United States. Through three games Canada ranks first on the power-play (50.0 percent) with five goals on 10 chances. They also have killed off 11 opposing power plays.

McDavid has played much of the tournament alongside Nick Ritchie (Anaheim Ducks) and Canada captain Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators).

"It's going to be a lot of fun; it's a New Year’s Eve tradition now," Lazar said of playing the United States. "They've got a great team over there that we've seen throughout the tournament, but we feel we're up to the task. It's going to be two good teams going at it and hopefully we can put on a show for these fans."

Canada and the United States have benefitted from sound defensive play and solid goaltending. Canada has outscored the opposition 16-1 backed by goaltenders Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens) and Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets). Fucale was in goal for wins against Slovakia (8-0) and Finland (4-1), and has a 0.50 goals-against average and .975 save percentage; Hockey Canada announced Tuesday that Comrie would be in goal against the United States.

"It's obviously a classic," Fucale said of the rivalry against the United States. "Every year we wait for that game. It's going to be a great game, there's no doubt about it. There's a lot of rivalry between these two countries, so we're excited about it."

The U.S. has outscored its opponents 11-1 behind Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) and Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers). Demko (0.48 GAA, .978 save percentage) backstopped wins against Finland (2-1 in a shootout) and Slovakia (3-0).

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