HSBC Arena was still buzzing early Friday evening after Canada's stunning shootout loss to Sweden. The members of Team USA were certainly focused on their game against Switzerland that followed immediately after, but it was impossible to ignore the warning shot that had been fired through the IIHF World Junior Championship.
The message? This baby is wide open. That all-but-guaranteed USA-Canada gold medal showdown? Kaput.
The USA took care of business with a tense, 2-1 win over the pesky Swiss that wrapped up the top seed in Group A and a bye to the semifinals. The Americans won all four of their games and goaltender Jack Campbell allowed just four goals in the process, clearly putting the hosts as the team to beat.
"It's what we set out to do in the tournament," said Chris Kreider, whose one-timer at 10:15 of the first period got the U.S. even at 1-1. "We're on our way and the tournament really starts now."
While there were more than 17,000 folks in the house for the Canada game, the crowd for Team USA didn't appear to be much more than about 10,000. But the fans were noisy, adding a cacophony of New Year's Eve horns to their chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" that lasted throughout the game and spilled into the arena pavilion on their way out the doors.
All teams take today off, ceding the ice back to the Buffalo Sabres for their game against the Boston Bruins, and the action resumes Sunday.
Team USA joined Sweden with a first-round bye into Monday's semifinals by virtue of winning their groups. So Sunday's quarterfinals will pit Canada and Switzerland at 3:30 and Finland against Russia at 7:30.
The U.S. and Canada thus cannot meet in Wednesday's gold medal game; the U.S. plays the Canada-Switzerland winner in Monday's semifinals at 7:30, with Sweden facing the Finland-Russia survivor Monday at 3:30.
Team USA went the distance against Switzerland, needing to hold on in the final minute as Swiss goaltender Benjamin Conz was pulled for an extra attacker.
The Americans snapped the 1-1 tie on Mitch Callahan's wraparound goal at 13:53 of the second period. Callahan came from behind the net and beat Conz to the right post before jamming the puck home. Conz was otherwise brilliant for Switzerland, making 40 saves.
"It was a real big test for our team, just what we needed," said USA coach Keith Allain.
Campbell was equally brilliant as he made 25 saves. Several were of the tough variety, topped by Sven Bartschi's breakaway with 3:59 to play.
"That was really another example of the great backcheck we have," Campbell said. "We were able to tie him up and he only got a dribble-type shot off that I was able to make the save."
"He's a clutch goaltender, a big-game goaltender who likes to compete," Krieder said. "He makes it easy to want to play in front of him."
There was some luck, too. Bartschi had Campbell beat on a slap shot with 15:10 left but the puck careened off the post.
The Americans continue to be the best defensive team in the tournament and now they get an extra day to rest. Several players are nicked up and two days off will certainly help.
Having the best goalie is also a major key, in a big contrast to the shaky play in the previous game by Canada's Olivier Roy and Sweden's Robin Lehner.
"Our team game defensively has been good but when you play in a tournament of this nature, the other teams will get quality scoring chances every night," Allain said. "[Campbell] is a calming influence on our hockey team and a guy we all rally around."
Several Team USA players were asked about the Canada result but all stayed on the politically correct, one-game-at-a-time route. It's four down, two to go to hang on to the gold they swiped from Canada last year.
Team USA's focus remains simple: Take care of business and don't fall prey to the kind of surprise the Canadians got.