PROGRAM NOTE: The 2016 World Junior Hockey Championship begins today in Finland, and Blue Jackets prospect Zach Werenski is captain of Team USA.
United States national junior team coach Ron Wilson said he likes the idea of playing Canada on the first day of the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, Saturday at Helsinki Ice Hall in Finland (1 p.m. ET; NHLN).
"For us it's very significant because we'll be familiar with them; I know Canada's coach [Dave Lowry], so I expect a very familiar type of a game from his team," Wilson said. "I'm ready for if they're going to try and be aggressive. I want to make sure that we come prepared and aren't sitting back on our heels right off the bat."
It's rare for the U.S. and Canada, the defending gold medalist, to play on opening day; it will mark the fifth time their rivalry game will be played on the first day of the WJC, and the first time since a 6-1 Canada win against the U.S. since the 1996 tournament.
At the 2015 WJC, Canada defeated the U.S. 5-3 at Bell Centre in Montreal on New Year's Eve; it was the 10th time Canada and the U.S. played on the final day of the preliminary round. Canada was led by two goals from Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) and a goal and an assist from Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres). Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings) scored twice for the United States.
Dave Starman, longtime NCAA hockey analyst and NHL Network analyst for the 2016 WJC, said he believes playing early is an advantage for both teams.
"I think if you play an average team first you can build some false confidence," Starman said. "I think you get to know who you are by playing really good teams. And if you lose, you lose. For the United States, I think playing Canada and Sweden in the opening two games will give the coaching staff a really good idea what their team is moving forward. They'll know what they need to do."
In addition to Canada, the U.S. will play Sweden on Dec. 28 (9 a.m. ET; NHLN), Switzerland on Dec. 30 (1 p.m. ET; NHLN) and Denmark on Dec. 31 (9 a.m. ET; NHLN) during preliminary-round play in Group A.
"Even if you lose against Canada and Sweden, the U.S. has a reasonably good chance to win the final two preliminary games and get into that [medal round] crossover, and crossover is all about who you match up with vs. who you play," Starman said. "I see a lot of positives from getting the Canadians out of the way first. I think this way you can then spend the rest of the tournament building your team as opposed to spending the rest of the tournament building for the Canada game."
United States center Auston Matthews, who had two shots on goal, won 5 of 17 faceoffs and was a minus-2 in the loss to Canada last year, is looking forward to the matchup this year. Matthews is expected to be the top pick of the 2016 NHL Draft.
"It's the big game that everyone circles on the calendar and it's obviously going to be a tough challenge. But it's a game we need to be ready for," Matthews said. "It's the first game of the tournament and we need to set the pace in that game, make sure we play well right from the start."
Canada forward Lawson Crouse (Florida Panthers), who had two shots on goal and was a minus-2 in the win last year, said he wasn't really interested in talking about the game prior to faceoff.
"We're taking this process day-by-day," Crouse said. "But whatever happens we're going to be ready. I know the coaching staff will make sure we're ready."
The United States has a 6-1-3-29-3 (W-OTW-OTL-L-T) record against Canada in WJC play, and Canada has won nine of the past 11 games in the series. Six of the past 11 games have been decided by one goal and three of those games required overtime.
"Playing Canada to kick off the tournament gets you excited right away; to me they've always been a little bit of a true marker or measurement for your team and that comes from success they've had in the history of the games that we've had with them," U.S. national junior team general manager Jim Johansson said. "I don't think there's really a negative playing Canada right out of the gate. But that's just one of the four games that you can hopefully build into a positive position for the quarterfinals."
United States left wing Matthew Tkachuk, also a top prospect for the 2016 draft, said he's looking forward to playing a part in the intense WJC rivalry this year.
"If you're going to win you have to go through the best teams and you might as well send the message right away," Tkachuk said. "We know both teams will be coming out gunning from the get-go. It's going to be a man's game out there and bodies will be flying, even on the big ice. We know there's going to be a lot of contact.
"The bigger, nastier team is going to come out with the win."