SASKATOON - There are no big names this year on the United States' junior hockey team, but this nondescript, lunch-bucket crew has had more success at the world junior championship than its high-profile predecessors.
The Americans face Canada for gold Tuesday (8 p.m. ET) for the first time since 2004. The U.S. came from behind that year in Helsinki, Finland, to edge Canada 4-3 and capture the country's first world junior title.
Canada has won every gold medal since then while U.S. teams loaded with first-round NHL draft picks floundered. A bronze medal in 2007 was their best result after that gold medal.
The Americans were shocked by Slovakia in last year's quarter-final in Ottawa and ended up ended up fifth.
No Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson or James van Riemsdyk on this U.S. team. There isn't one top-10 NHL draft pick. Defenceman Jake Gardiner is the highest at No. 17 by the Anaheim Ducks.
"We've got to prove something," said Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Jerry D'Amigo said Monday. "We don't have those top-skilled players. We have a lot of heart."
The Americans gave Canada their toughest challenge of the tournament in the final game of the preliminary round last Wednesday.
Trailing 4-2 midway through third period, the hosts scored a pair of goals and then won 5-4 in a shootout to secure a bye to the semifinals.
The U.S. beat Finland 6-2 in the quarter-final and then favoured Sweden 5-2 in Sunday's semifinal to earn a rematch.
Far from feeling discouraged from their loss to Canada, the U.S. feels they are inching closer to halting the host country's bid to win six straight gold at this tournament.
"We had a win in our hands I think and we let it slip, so we've got to limit the turnovers and play solid defence," said Vancouver Canucks draft pick Jordan Schroeder, who is playing in his third world junior tournament.
Canada turned the puck over several times in the face of American pressure, and the U.S. scored a pair of short-handed goals against the defending champions by stealing the puck at the blue-line.
"We'd like to have the same type of game plan," said head coach Dean Blais. "We know we're going to have to work and finish our checks and work for everything we get.
"We took six penalties against them. That's too many because more than likely they'll get a couple (of power-play goals) this next round."
U.S. captain Derek Stepan leads the Americans in scoring with three goals and nine assists in six games, followed by D'Amigo with five goals and five assists.
Jack Campbell from Port Huron, Mich., had a strong performance in net during regulation time against Canada, but the 17-year-old struggled in the shootout.
Blais wasn't tipping his hand Monday as to which goaltender he'll start Tuesday, but Mike Lee was in the U.S. net for both playoff wins.
Blais knows Lee well as the Phoenix Coyote prospect backstopped the USHL team Blais coached in Fargo, N.D., to the league final last season.
"He took a brand new franchise to the national championship," Blais said. "That wasn't our good play. It was Mike Lee, so he can play."
Lee, now playing at St. Cloud State University, has also had international success against Canada.
He was the winning goalie in the Americans' 7-1 win over Canada West at the 2008 World Junior 'A' Championship in Camrose, Alta.
"You're playing for your country the same way," said Lee. "I was fortunate enough to play in the championship game last year and come out on top.
"This is obviously a little bigger stage, but you can compare it."
This U.S. team is playing a more cohesive game than previous teams that underachieved in this tournament.
For the first time, the Americans held a selection camp prior to the world junior championship, which is what Canada does every year.
Players had to compete for jobs on the team, instead of USA Hockey simply naming 22 players to the squad.
"It changed the mentality completely," said forward Ryan Bourque, the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque.
"There was about 29 guys pretty much battling for 22 spots. It upped the ante on the competitive level even before camp. You had time to gel with your teammates and linemates."
USA Hockey has been developing top-notch talent via its full-time under-18 and under-17 men's programs that operate out of Ann Arbour, Mich.
The addition of selection camp was to foster the competitive edge that seems to pull Canada to victory.
"We took what were the most competitive guys up here," Blais said. "We let some talented guys go for the same reason Canada lets them go every year.
"You've got to win this thing with some grit."