Sweden faces Russia in the other semi, with the winners from both matches going to the gold medal game
It's the matchup that everyone wants to see.
Sure, it might have turned out to be more historic if it happened in the gold medal game, but it's hard to not get excited any time Team Canada plays Team USA at the World Juniors.
For the best under-20 players from two of the strongest hockey nations, it might as well be the tournament's final game: with the determined attitudes of these two teams, attaining anything less than gold will be seen as failure.
But only one team can win gold, and only one of the Canada and the USA will get to play for it, an honor that will be decided in one half of Thursday morning's semi-finals.
The other half consists of what will surely be another edge-of-your-seater, Sweden versus Russia, in a rematch of last year's gold medal contest. The Swedes hold the composure and the confidence of being the defending champs, but the Russian team and their hometown crowd will be thirsting for the sweet taste of revenge for their 2-1 overtime loss one year ago.
You'd be hard-pressed to ask for better semi-final matchups. In an article that I wrote before the tournament began I noted that Canada, the USA, Sweden and Russia were the "Big 4" teams in the tournament, and all four have reinforced that with their play so far this year, setting the stage for an epic conclusion to what has already been an epic tournament.
While Sweden and Canada, who earned byes through the quarterfinals, sat and watched, the Americans and the Russians battled for their tournament lives in Wednesday's games.
If there's anything that the USA team has going for it right now that other teams need to watch out for, it's momentum. The US completely steamrolled the Czech Republic on Wednesday by a score of 7-0, following up the also lopsided victory, 9-3, that they achieved over Slovakia at the end of round robin play.
Things certainly didn't come as easily for Russia in their match against Switzerland. The Swiss played valiantly and held a 3-2 edge late in the third, much to the chagrin of the stunned home crowd, before forward Nikita Kucherov tied the game with only 1:39 remaining. Kucherov then scored the shootout winner, escalating his team to a huge 4-3 comeback victory.
Now even bigger tests awaits both teams.
While the US' 16 goals over the course of two games is normally too torrid of a pace to easily maintain, the challenge will be even more significant against the Canadians. All seven of Canada's defencemen were either first or second round NHL draftees, and goaltender Malcolm Subban has been getting better and better as the tournament goes on. The entire Canadian squad looked great in their 2-1 round robin victory over the US, and looked even better in their 4-1 domination over Russia. The team has already faced, and overcome, adversity early in the tournament, and after not playing today will be fully rested heading into Thursday. It would come as a shock to see the Canadians play anything less than one of their best games of the tournament.
Still, momentum can be a mammoth thing in hockey, and the US has that right now in spades after such a huge victory over the Czechs. The fact that the team is scoring goals at will, is getting huge performances out of their blueline, and goaltender John Gibson hasn't missed a step all tournament long signifies that this American team is firing on all cylinders right now, which will make it hard for Canada to chip away at any weaknesses. Hot teams are hard to slow down, and the US could not have picked a better time to start generating heat.
Canada and the USA have combined for some of the best hockey played across any league or tournament over the last few years, and Thursday's contest looks like it won't be any different.
Despite an undefeated record, Sweden has been a relatively quiet team at this year's tournament. While that might be considered a problem for a team like Canada or Russia, it certainly is not for a Swedish team that is methodical and calculated to an impressive degree of efficiency. Deep, balanced and disciplined, the Swedes have stuck to their systems this tournament and forced their opposition to abide by them as well. If they can continue to do so against Russia, a team that has been all over the map at the 2013 WJCs, then it could put them one win away from back-to-back golds.
What people can expect out of Russia in the semis is anyone's guess. Usually more enigmatic than the average team, this year's Russians take the cake. They were completely shut down against Canada and looked far worse than they should have against the Swiss, despite needing a win to move on. But Russia is still fighting, and still has a plethora of explosive talent on their roster that is capable of igniting at any moment. Could the massive scare against Switzerland be enough of a wake-up call to get the team, especially 2012 1st overall draft pick Nail Yakupov, to finally play to the maximum of their abilities?
Speaking of wake-up calls, the Canada-USA game begins at 3 a.m. CT, while Russia-Sweden will be played at 7:00 a.m. CT. Despite the awkward starting times, all signs point to these games being well worth the lack of sleep.