In 2004 the United States won its first -- and only -- World Junior Championship gold medal, going 6-0, and capped by a dramatic three-goal, third-period comeback in the gold-medal game against Canada.
Things haven't gone as well since then. The Americans finished fourth in 2005 and '06. They won bronze in 2007, but it was fourth again last year, despite going undefeated in Group play.
Don't think the memory of four straight semifinal-round losses is lost on the 2009 U.S. World Junior team.
"This team has been knocking on the door, has been a few goals shy for the past few years, has been getting a taste without the full thing, so now we want a gold medal," said Ian Cole
, a defensemen on the current squad. "That's what we came here to win and that's what our focus is, but we're going to take it one game at a time until we get there."
The Americans' step-by-step approach has led to Wednesday's battle with Canada (7:30 p.m. ET, NHL Network, TSN), a match between the two undefeated teams in Group A in the final game of the round-robin portion of the tournament. The winner will finish first in the Group and earn a bye into the semifinals, which historically has been very important.
Just how important? Since 2003, 10 of the 12 teams that won their group advanced to the gold-medal game.
Cole is relishing the marquee matchup with Canada.
"The whole point in this tournament is trying to find the best U-20 team in the world," he said. "And playing Kazakhstan and Germany, not taking anything away from those teams, but you want to test yourself against the best in the world. We're not looking too far forward, we're focusing on the next day and the next task, but (Canada) definitely has stars next to it on the schedule. It'll be a test, a pleasure, a good measuring stick."
The game is overflowing with drama for the U.S. A New Year's Eve match against the four-time defending champions and host nation means there will be nerves.
Cole, though, believes he and his teammates will be able to feed off the Scotiabank Crowd's energy.
"Being in Canada, the atmosphere is obviously unbelievable," he said. "It's unmatched how much they truly care, how much they love being a part of it. And although they aren't your fans, you feed off of their energy."
The U.S. appears poised to break the pattern of "good round-robin, bad medal round." Their team is the oldest in the tournament (only one player, center Jordan Schroeder
, is 2009 Entry Draft-eligible). It's also not a typical USA Hockey construct -- eight players were selected from Canadian Hockey League-member teams. Compare that with the past two tournaments, where only eight skaters total were taken from CHL teams.
Another philosophical decision this year has been to build a team with familiarity. The U.S. roster is full of teammates and players who have skated together previously -- more importantly, players who have won together.
The top line of Schroeder, Colin Wilson
and James van Riemsdyk
is playing its third straight international tournament together, which includes a silver medal at the 2007 Under-18 World Championship. Forwards Drayson Bowman
, Mitch Wahl
and Tyler Johnson all won the 2008 Memorial Cup with the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs. Forwards Aaron Palushaj
and Matt Rust
are University of Michigan teammates. Schroeder, Mike Hoeffel
and Cade Fairchild
play at the University of Minnesota, and Blake Kessel
and van Riemsdyk are teammates at the University of New Hampshire.
That sort of familiarity has led to instant karma on the ice.
"The way they work the puck and the way they find each other, they know where each other is going to be," Cole said. "You watch how our top line sees each other, and Rust and Palushaj and (Eric) Tangradi and the way they have played together, the way they find each other, you can tell the chemistry is huge."
"(Canada) definitely has stars next to it on the schedule. It'll be a test, a pleasure, a good measuring stick."
-- U.S. defenseman Ian Cole
It also has led to a lot of confidence in the U.S. dressing room.
"As a team you have roles, and you need your top players to step up when the chips are down," said Cole. "You need goals out of your big-time forwards, you need big stops out of your goaltender, you need your shut-down 'D,' and there is more than enough talent to do all of that on this team, especially against the top teams.
"We have guys who can do that. I feel very confident going into every game with this team."