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#WCH2016: Canada, Team USA ready for a fast & physical game

by Arpon Basu / Columbus Blue Jackets

OTTAWA -- Team USA general manager Dean Lombardi has said his primary focus when building his roster for the World Cup of Hockey 2016 was to defeat Team Canada.

Not win the tournament, but rather win against Team Canada, because that's something Team USA would presumably need to do at some point if it wants to be World Cup champion.

Team USA will get its first opportunity to show if Lombardi was on the right track on Friday, when it faces Team Canada in their pretournament opener at Nationwide Arena in Columbus (7 pm ET; ESPNU, SN, TVA Sports).

Team Canada, the gold medal winner at the past two Winter Olympics, responded with what could best be described as a collective shrug.

"We'll take it as a compliment," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said Wednesday before boarding a flight for Columbus. "I mean, obviously we're the defending champs so I think most teams are doing what they can to try to beat us."

As far as humble brags go, that's a pretty good one.

There are 14 players on the Team USA roster who also played at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where they lost against Canada 1-0 in the semifinal before being defeated 5-0 by Finland in the bronze medal game. Team Canada has 13 returning players who followed up that victory against the USA by defeating Sweden 3-0 in the gold medal game.

Team Canada and Team USA will play again Saturday at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa (7 pm ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports), beginning the pretournament with back-to-back games against a heated rival.

Lombardi added a number of players to the Team USA roster who are recognized for their ability to impose themselves physically, and Canada expects that to be a big part of USA coach John Tortorella's game plan against them.

Bring it on, they say.

"I think every team that plays against Canada wants to be physical, that's just their M.O.," Team Canada forward Joe Thornton said. "The United States can be physical, but I think Canada can play physical too. So I don't think we're too worried about that."

Team Canada coach Mike Babcock was asked about Lombardi's comments, and suggested that would not be a team-building approach he would necessarily endorse.

"What I've found about these tournaments is if you spend a lot of time focused on yourselves and trying to get better and worry about your group, then you have a chance as the tournament goes on to focus in on the nuances of the opposition," Babcock said. "But the problem with building your team to beat one team, what happens if you never play that team?"

Babcock was not exactly thrilled Team Canada has to play on back-to-back nights with travel to begin its pretournament schedule, but he is eager to see all the work put in over the first three days of training camp put into action against live competition.

The fact that competition is Team USA is an added bonus.

"It's the U.S. playing Canada, obviously there's a rivalry before it even starts, and so the tempo will be at a different level than you're used to," Babcock said. "These players normally play their way into playing, if that makes any sense. Usually there's eight exhibition games, or something like that, and you play four of them. So this is a little different process for us, but we're going to go out there and find out what we have on our team.

"It's real important as a coaching staff that we figure out and get to know the players the best we possibly can and let them have the opportunity to show their stuff. So everyone's going to play, except we'll have three scratches … but the guys that play, they're playing. I'm rolling them out the door."

Babcock would not reveal who will be scratched from the lineup Friday; his only known plan is Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price will start his first game since he was injured Nov. 25, putting an end to his 2015-16 NHL season.

"If you watched him in practice, I don't think he's missed a beat," Pietrangelo said. "I can't score on him in games, I can't score on him in practice. I think most guys are thinking the same thing. For a guy who hasn't played in nine months, it's pretty impressive to watch him out there."

An added element of the USA-Canada rivalry is NHL teammates facing each other, and with the one-sided nature of this matchup in recent years, there are valuable bragging rights on the line.

Price will face his Canadiens teammate Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Toews will face his Chicago Blackhawks teammate Patrick Kane, Thornton will face his San Jose Sharks teammate Joe Pavelski, and so on. On top of the need to prepare for the tournament, the pride factor among those players should lead to the intensity being ratcheted up fairly quickly.

"I don't have to personally remind him, but I think a lot of other people maybe do that for me," Toews said when asked if he speaks to Kane often about his Olympic gold medals. "That's definitely part of it. Even though it's an exhibition game coming up against the U.S., there's going to be some friendly rivalry, I guess, amongst some [NHL] teammates."

No, this is not a run of the mill game to get ready for the World Cup. Systems and line combinations will be tinkered with and both teams will want to fine tune the work they've put in since the start of training camp. But there is rarely anything casual about a Canada-USA game, and this one should be no different.

"I think you're setting the tone for the tournament right now," Pietrangelo said. "I think we're trying to find out where we're at, they're trying to find out where they're at. There's obviously going to be some kinks that need to be worked out on both sides, but I think once you get into the game it's going to be just as competitive as any other."

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