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Canada gets its date with USA ; Showdown Tonight In Semi Win over Swiss sets up rematch of border rivals

The chant from a few leatherlungs supporting Team Canada started slowly as the clock rolled inside three minutes left Sunday. Soon, it started to grow. Around the 100 level of HSBC Arena, through the club seats and up to the far corners of the 300s.

The message quickly got louder and clearer: "We want U-S-A. We want U-S-A."

Canada is going to get the Americans. And top officials of the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship and the Buffalo Sabres will get the dream matchup they've spent more than two years hoping for.

It's two days earlier than expected and it will be a semifinal rather than the gold medal game but that hardly lessens the impact. Canada survived Sunday's quarterfinals against Switzerland by grinding out a 4-1 victory, and its reward is a matchup tonight against Team USA (7:30, NHL Network).

Think about the great events on Buffalo ice. The Stanley Cup finals have been here twice. The Sabres won a pair of unforgettable exhibitions against Soviet teams in the Cold War days. The NHL All-Star Game, featuring a Gilbert Perreault overtime goal, was here in 1978.

On paper at least, this game could be in that class as a long-remembered moment in the city's hockey history. The atmosphere figures to be Sabres-Leafs intensity times 10.

The teams played two spectacular 6-5 games last year in Saskatoon, with Canada winning in a shootout and Team USA bouncing back to take the gold medal on an overtime goal by current Washington Capitals rookie John Carlson.

"I think anytime you have a U.S.-Canada game it will be a great game, a great atmosphere for everybody," said U.S. forward Kyle Palmieri.

"If we want the gold medal, we're going to have to beat them at some point," said Canada's Louis Leblanc, a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens who left Harvard University to return to junior hockey in Canada. "So if it's [Monday], that's great."

Tickets for the game are $95 and $140. They can be purchased online at www.buffaloworldjuniors.com, by calling (888) 467-2273, or at the arena box office. About 2,200 remain.

The Americans are 4-0 and have ridden the solid goaltending of Jack Campbell, a Dallas Stars prospect who has allowed just four goals. Canada, meanwhile, is struggling in the net and had to overcome its shootout loss Friday against Sweden.

"We're pretty excited," said Canadian captain Ryan Ellis. "We want to play the Swedes again and we want to play the Americans. We know they'll be a huge task."

Canada had plenty of issues Sunday against the pesky Swiss and certainly needs to play better tonight.

Mark Visentin of the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara Ice Dogs took over in goal from the struggling Olivier Roy and promptly let in a fluke tally on the first shot he faced.

Inti Pestoni got it at 1:09, dribbling one just inside the goalie's right skate and post after the puck was deflected in front of the net.

"You just have to shake it off," Visentin said. "Can't really think about it because you can't control that. Goalies need to be mentally tough."

"One thing you can't practice or really know the response to is pressure," said Canada coach Dave Cameron. "I thought after giving up the first goal, 'Now we'll be able to see how he handles pressure.' He did quite well."

Visentin continued to look shaky the rest of the way, especially with his glove hand, but did not need to push the degree of difficulty in stopping the final 21 shots he faced.

The offense, meanwhile, struggled to beat Swiss goaltender Benjamin Conz. He made 46 saves to go with the 40 he made two nights earlier in a 2-1 loss to Team USA.

The Canadian players were clearly tight and there was audible apprehension from the red-clad, flag-waving fans throughout the building as the game was locked in a 1-1 tie deep into the second period.

All of that seemed to get released on Casey Cizikas' goal at 17:28 of the second period, a quick snapshot over Conz's glove on a two-on-one break after a strong pass from Leblanc.

"There was a lot of stress going through the arena," said Canadian forward Ryan Johansen, who had tied the game at 15:06 of the first. "It was a pretty big relief to get that one."

Leblanc made it 3-1 at 4:17 of the third, beating Conz from the right circle on the short side and Sabres prospect Zack Kassian added an empty netter with 1:59 left. That allowed the announced crowd of 14,890 to simply count down the seconds to the matchup they knew was coming.

The Canadians have talked about the Americans more than any other team for the week they've been in town. Their chance at redemption is finally at hand.

"I don't think we need reminders [of last year]. It's the U.S.," Leblanc said. "And I don't think anybody in our locker room likes them."

Game on.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com