Unbeatable, they said. A juggernaut, they exclaimed. Team Canada, a gross compilation of first-round picks and future stars that awaited the Americans in the semifinals, was licking their chops as they prepared to get back on the ice after a flawless record in Group A play.
But when the puck dropped on Thursday afternoon in Ufa, the Canadians were met by an American team that hardly resembled the one they beat just a few days ago. The United States clinched a spot in their third gold-medal game at the World Junior level with a resounding 5-1 victory, making a squad that was considered Canada's best roster in over a decade look like a rag-tag bunch of peewees.
John Gibson was the unsung hero in net for the Americans, as he's been for the majority of the tournament. Despite suffering two 2-1 losses in the preliminary round, Gibson's 1.51 goals against average was tops in the tournament heading into action on Thursday. The backbone of this United States squad was as strong as ever as his team built a 4-0 advantage, making key stops against J.C. Lipon and Ryan Strome on a breakaway. He made 36 saves in all.
He was finally solved early in the third period by Ty Rattie on a sloppy play by both his defensemen and the officials as the play appeared to have been blown dead after Rattie's initial shot rang off the post. But that proved to be the only time he'd be beaten despite a significant uptick in pressure applied by the Canadians.
With just under 10 minutes to go in the third period, the Canadians threw everything they could at Gibson. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tried to outwait him from 10 feet away. But he couldn't get it past Gibson's glove, who got enough of it to push the shot over the net. The Canadians fired six shots on that power play, but were turned away each time.
It wasn't just Gibson who was nearly perfect, either. While he was putting out fires in the defensive zone, the Americans strong forecheck pushed Canada back on their heels early, allowing the team's high-scoring defensemen to creep into the rush. Captain Jake McCabe struck twice, beating Malcolm Subban to the glove side as the US took a 2-0 lead into the locker room.
McCabe, who was named Player of the Game, has scored two goals all season at Wisconsin. Though McCabe is known more as a conservative defenseman, he was able to find open space in the high slot because of a relentless effort around the net by the American forwards.
Early into the second period, John Gaudreau remained hot, getting his first of two goals with an absolute laser of a shot Subban never had a chance on. Gaudreau's second marker served as the ultimate extinguisher at 15:41 of the third, shutting down all hopes of a frantic Canadian comeback like a year ago. Gaudreau now has six goals in his last three games, including a hat trick in a 7-0 thumping of the Czechs in the quarterfinals.
The Americans chased Subban, instantly making him (and apparently Ryan Murphy) the scapegoat for his dilapidated defensemen, when Jim Vesey danced in and beat him to the far post to make it 4-0 with just a few minutes to go in the second period. Questions will undoubtedly swirl about if he deserves to start the bronze-medal game on Saturday, which is unfortunate for a player who was shaping up as the tournament MVP to this point.
But now, it's Gibson who's distinguished himself from the field. And it's the Americans, not the unstoppable Canadians, who will play for gold on Saturday.