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Penguins' American Players Savor U.S. Victory Over Canada in the World Junior Tournament

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
It was a sight to behold in the Penguins’ locker room following the team’s 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night at Mellon Arena. Players were hooting and hollering and jumping around exchanging high fives and fist pounds.

Such a scene probably comes as no surprise with the team putting to rest a five-game losing skid with the win, but it wasn’t the two points earned in the Eastern Conference standings which had the players in such a jovial mood. Instead it was the thrilling conclusion to the 2010 World Junior Championship game between the United States and Canada which saw the Americans pull off the upset with a 6-5 overtime victory after blowing a two-goal lead with three minutes left in regulation.

The Americans’ victory completed back-to-back international tournament victories in a row for the U.S. over Canada, both on Canadian soil nonetheless, after the Team USA Under-17 squad, led by Pittsburgh natives J.T. Miller, Barrett Kaib and John Gibson, defeated Ontario 2-1 on Monday night to capture the World Under-17 Challenge in Timmins, Ont. (click here to read more about the U-17 Team)

“It is big for the U.S. – especially doing it in Canada,” Massachusetts native Bill Guerin said. “They have really started to put up good players consistently now and to develop kids. They are really doing great.”

“You can win the Under-17 that we did and no one is going to talk about that too much when you win the World Juniors,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, who hails from Michigan. “That’s a tournament the Canadians take great pride in. If you saw the scene in here last night with 39 or so young kids gathered around the TV, cheering, screaming and yelling, it makes for a lot of fun.

“It seems that year after year after year, this tournament brings that out. For Canada and the U.S., it’s nice being able to walk around and not say anything today.”

In Canada the World Junior Championships are the equivalent of major college football here in the United States. Next to the Stanley Cup playoffs there is nothing more important than the country’s top under-20 talent bringing home a gold medal each year.
It is big for the U.S. – especially doing it in Canada. They have really started to put up good players consistently now and to develop kids. They are really doing great. - Bill Guerin

With 13 Canadians on the Penguins’ current roster, including tournament alumni Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang, there was plenty of rooting interest in the outcome. The Penguins also boast six American-born players, which meant there was a strong gathering around the locker room television.

As the players began to congregate around the tube the Americans held a 5-3 lead with just under three minutes remaining in regulation. You could sense a worrisome feeling on the faces of the Canadian players watching the game. Team Canada then seized control of the offensive zone and came all the way back to tie the game, 5-5, thanks to two goals off the stick of Jordan Eberle.

Just like that the Canadians almost in unison leaped to their feet and began celebrating as if they had won the game. In their eyes Canada’s domination down the stretch would make for a quick overtime and yet another international title for the red and white.

John Carlson had other ideas for Team USA as he followed a big save in the defensive end by U.S. goalkeeper Jack Campbell with a wrist shot from the left circle past the short side of Canadian goaltender Martin Jones for the clinching goal 4:21 into overtime.

“I got to see the overtime and it was great because it shut everyone up in here,” American Brooks Orpik said. “You have to remind the guys in here that they don’t play for the Canadian team anymore. They are just from Canada.

“You would think they all have family members on the team the way they start hugging each other. We all pull for our countries in different ways but it was a little bizarre.”

“It was pretty cool to see, especially since Canada has been dominating the tournament for a while,” Grand Rapids, Minnesota native Alex Goligoski said. “It didn’t look good there after they scored the two goals in the final five minutes. They played smart in overtime and it was good to see the celebration and see Team USA win.”

So, did the Americans make sure to rub-in the come-from-ahead victory to the Candians?

“We like to keep it classy,” Goligoski said. “We just rubbed it in a little bit but it wasn’t like when Canada wins and they kind of get all over people.”

“They gave it to us pretty good,” Jordan Staal jokingly complained. “As Canadians we are a pretty prideful group but we took one hard last night.”

Fans in the United States might not understand the full realm of what an American victory meant on an international scale, especially in this particular tournament. The success of Team USA allowed the players a chance to showcase their potential NHL skills in a clutch situation as well as gave the entire USA Hockey program confidence for future international competitions.

“It is the best players from every country,” said Letang, who won two gold medals in 2006 and’07 with Canada, and was the captain of the 2007 squad. “You see the best from teams like the U.S., Russia and Sweden so it is a good measuring stick, especially because you are playing against a lot of future NHL all-stars.

“For the scouts and general managers who go to watch the games it’s a good chance to take a look at the next guys who are coming.”

And those scouts and GMs should take notice because with each passing year USA Hockey continues to prove it can consistently play with the top hockey nations in the world in addition to churning out high-end talent in record numbers.

As veterans of USA Hockey, Orpik and Guerin were able to provide their insights as to why this has been the case.

“I think the biggest thing is the (United States National) Development team they started in Ann Arbor, Mich.,” Orpik said. “That has been huge for USA Hockey.

“With NHL expansion teams going into places like California and down south you see a lot more kids coming from California, Texas, Arizona and states where you never saw players come from before.”

“I just think the pool is deeper,” Guerin said. “I think there are more players out there. They are getting them (to play) because hockey is becoming less of a regional sport.

“They are pulling players from all over the country now and not just from Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts and places like that. It is definitely a much deeper pool of players.”

That deeper pool of players includes a strong western Pennsylvania presence as Pittsburgh is well represented in Ann Arbor with Miller, Kaib and Gibson playing for the Under-17 squad and defenseman Stephen Johns, a top-rated prospect for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and forward Brandon Saad, skating for the Under-18 team. (click here to read about Pittsburgh's presence on the NTDP Team)

Orpik, who will once again don an American uniform next month when he laces up his skates for the United States in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, says that even with an established national program and more talent to work with, the U.S. still has to keep their foot on the throttle if they want to pull off more defeats over the Canadians.

“We are still a ways away from where Canada is,” he said. “They live and die hockey there. Here there are so many other options. It is definitely catching up, that’s for sure.”

Notes: Orpik, who played for Team USA during the 2000 World Junior Championships, and his fellow Olympians on the 2010 U.S. squad should be credited with an assist in the American’s victory on Tuesday night. They were each asked to write an inspirational email to the Under-20 players prior to the game. It’s not unreasonable to think not letting their heroes down after receiving those notes could have provided the American players that extra jolt they needed after Canada stormed back.

“We got an email from Jim Johannson, who is the head of USA Hockey,” Orpik said. “We all had to write those guys a good luck email the other day which is pretty cool. After that you had a little more interest in the game. It was disappointing we played on the same night but at least we caught the good part of the game.”

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