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It's same old story when facing Canada on ice

The result was all too familiar for thousands of American kids scattered across hockey towns along the U.S.-Canada border. Anyone who played for Western New York travel teams certainly understood the feeling Monday. How many times have you passed through customs declaring nothing but a few losses and third place?

Right when you think the U.S. had established its superiority and could finally send its rivals home precisely the same way, Canadians reaffirmed that hockey remains their game until further notice. They've been here for 11 days spending money, and yet it still feels like they stole your wallet.

You need to see little more than the score -- Canada 4, United States 1 -- to understand who remains the biggest bullies at the rink. The Canadians dominated almost from start to finish Monday in the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship semifinals and moved into the gold-medal game against Russia on Wednesday in HSBC Arena.

Canada is still Canada, indeed.

"Canada is always going to be Canada," U.S. forward Ryan Bourque said. "They're there every year and at the top of the brackets every year. It's the only way you can say it. As frustrating as it is to say it, they're good."

It was surprising to hear the Canadian loonie wasn't better than the U.S. buck Monday after taking a spill over the weekend. Our noisy neighbors had no problem throwing in their three cents and telling Americans to keep the change. They bought 63 percent of the tickets and made about 95 percent of the racket.

Not long after Ryan Johansen buried a rebound to give Canada a 3-0 lead did fans understand the game was no longer in doubt. They began chanting "This is our house!" because, well, it was. They didn't simply take over HSBC Arena. They parked themselves on the sofa, threw their feet on the coffee table, grabbed the remote control and emptied the beer fridge.

"It was absolutely nuts. I couldn't even hear myself talk out there or even yell," Team Canada goalie Mark Visentin said. "Sometimes, it even hurt my ears. It's never a bad thing. It was unbelievable, especially when you're playing the U.S. on their home ground. Our fans were amazing."

The U.S. has, in fact, gained ground. More American kids are playing every year, and many are coming from nontraditional hockey markets. Chris Brown, who scored the lone U.S. goal, is from Texas. Their roster included two players from California and another from Nevada. A recent Hockey News report suggested 30,000 fewer Canadians will play in the next five years.

In truth, the United States still has work ahead before convincing anyone that it has effectively narrowed the gap. Canada has now reached the gold-medal game in the World Juniors for 10 straight years. It's remarkable when you consider how often good teams get knocked out on one shot or a single mistake.

This year was expected to be different. The U.S. actually was favored to win the tournament. They had eight players, twice as many as Canada, returning from last year's championship team. They had better goaltending, more speed and talent across the roster and a calm coach in Keith Allain. And they also were playing under considerably less pressure.

The World Juniors is an 11-day festival for Canadians, but most Americans don't even know it exists. Canada in its previous two games looked vulnerable to succumbing to the pressure of playing for a proud nation under testy, intense coach Dave Cameron.

Canada treated Monday's matchup against favored Team USA before a sellout crowd as if it were pond hockey with nobody watching.

"Obviously, Canada does a tremendous job developing hockey players," U.S. goalie Jack Campbell said. "When you think of Canada, the one thing people think about is hockey. They have a great country for this sport, and it's a lot of fun to go against those guys. We gave our all and fell a little bit short today."

Canada from the start was intent on knocking around the U.S. players, disrupting their flow and negating whatever speed and skill advantage the Americans had. The Canadians scored the first goal, won more races to the puck and quickly became armed with the most dangerous weapon in hockey: confidence.

Visentin faced five routine shots and no scoring chances in the first period. Curtis Hamilton scored early after a defensive breakdown allowed him to collect his own rebound. Visentin settled into his crease when Quinton Howden redirected Brett Connolly's pass into the top corner.

By the time Sabres prospect Zack Kassian broke free to give them a 4-0 lead, Canadian kids who were allowed to stay up late to watch the game were tucked away in their beds knowing their gold medal hopes were still much intact. American kids were in an all too familiar place, too.

They were thinking about bronze.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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