While it's not guaranteed to happen every year due to the groups being seeded, the mostly-annual U.S.-Canada World Junior group game on New Year's Eve has become a huge part of the holiday in Canada, and for the slice of Americans who follow the tournament. It's always a thrilling affair, and one at which a year's worth of bragging rights can be won.
First place in Group A is on the line when the U.S. and Canada meet tomorrow (4 PM ET, NHL Network), as both teams go into the matchup undefeated. The Americans will need to win in regulation in order to win the group; an OT/shootout victory wouldn't be enough, as the US was held to a shootout win in their opener and Canada has superior goal differential.
Much has already been decided going into this game. The U.S. and Canada are guaranteed to finish 1 and 2 in some order in the group, meaning that the two teams would be on a collision course to meet in the gold medal match if they make it there.
Group B hasn't featured too many surprises, so Sweden and Russia are locked in to the top two spots in that pool - meaning the US and Canada will both have quarterfinals against significantly lower ranked opponents (probably either the Swiss or the Czechs, depending on how it shakes out, though Denmark is still alive and looks much improved from past years). Last year, the U.S.'s group stage loss to Canada relegated them to third place in their group and a quarterfinal game against Russia - a much more daunting consequence than the result of a loss tomorrow. CORRECTION: Oops! This whole paragraph turned out to look dumb because in the final two days, Russia did indeed slide down to third in Group B—and the US's loss in Group A to Canada means they did indeed end up getting Russia in the quarterfinals. Yikes/my bad.
That said, both teams will be desperately wanting the victory. This game is the measuring stick as both teams seek to size up where they're at going in to the knockout stages.
For the Americans, the wins have come, but the performances haven't necessarily been as convincing as they would have liked given the depth and talent on the roster. In their opener on Friday against Finland, Thatcher Demko yielded an early goal. Demko's BC teammate Alex Tuch equalized later in the first period, but the notoriously stingy Finns limited the US's grade A chances the rest of the way before ultimately falling in the shootout. Demko came up big with two key stops to help hand the Americans the victory.
Game two came against a much weaker German team, and the US had little trouble dispatching them 6-0 and controlling most of the game. The degree of difficulty increased yesterday when the US faced Slovakia. It took until deep, deep into the second period before Sonny Milano (ugh) finally broke a long scoreless deadlock. The US added two more in the third period for the 3-0 victory.
With the exception of Finland, though, none of those games tell you too much about how the US matches up with the top gold medal contenders. Tomorrow's game should help provide some of that information.
For the US to really go on a tear going into the medal rounds, they're going to need more of their elite forwards to start dominating. Dylan Larkin of the University of Michigan has been the star of the show so far, with 3 goals and 2 assists, but after him, nobody else has more than two points. Sonny Milano (ugh) appears to be on the right track with goals in each of the past two games, but US fans would certainly like to see Jack Eichel, Alex Tuch, or Auston Matthews start to really heat up.
BC players' stats so far:
Alex Tuch - 1 G, 1 A, 2 pts., +1, 14 SOG
Miles Wood - 0 G, 0 A, 0 pts., +1, 4 SOG
Noah Hanifin - 0 G, 1 A, 1 pt., +2, 5 SOG
Ian McCoshen - 0 G, 0 A, 0 pts., +1, 1 SOG
Thatcher Demko - 2 GP, 2-0-0., 0.48 GAA, 97.8% SV%