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2017 World Juniors: Everything you should know about the USA vs. Canada gold medal game

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Canada needs this.

HOCKEY: DEC 31 IIHF World Junior Championship - USA v Canada Photo by Dan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hello. You may have heard that Canada and the United States are playing another important hockey tournament game on Thursday. You’re right!

Those are always fun. (Remember the Sidney Crosby golden goal?) But this is the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. It’s a bunch of teenagers. Hardcore hockey fans are familiar with it and have been paying attention for a month, now. I’d wager 80 percent of sports fans aren’t hardcore hockey fans, so you might need to get caught up to speed before tonight’s epic game.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with five things you should know before the puck drops. And know this: it’s going to be one hell of a game. And be nice to your North American neighbors. We all have to share this continent regardless of a teenage hockey tournament.

The (likely) goaltenders are the best in the tournament

Sweden v Canada: Semifinal - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Why Canada didn’t go with Carter Hart in net for the semi-final game against Sweden is beyond me, but it nearly cost them this shot at the gold medal. Connor Ingram gave up two goals on his first three shots against before head coach Dominique Ducharme replaced him with Hart, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect.

Hart stopped all 28 shots he faced, and Canada is playing for gold.

That’s been the theme of the tournament with Hart, whose 3-0 record and 1.75 goals-against average are the best of any knockout-round team. The second-best? USA goalie Tyler Parsons.

Parsons, a Calgary Flames prospect, was sensational late against Russia in the semi-final, and he had to be after allowing three goals and the game-tying tally late in the third. That doesn’t erase what he’s done in the tournament (that .917 save percentage is nothing to sneeze at, though that 1.92 GAA might have to do with the USA defense as a whole), but it means he comes into the gold medal game with more of a downer on his ledger than Hart. But he’s still as elite, meaning we could be in for some sensational saves in big moments.

Both sides are chock-full of elite NHL prospects

USA v Canada - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship

All but two players on Canada and the United States are already drafted. Third-string USA goalie Jake Oettinger is a top 2017 entry draft prospect, as is defenseman Jack Ahcan. Other than that, most of the players here have experience with NHL training staffs and have bright futures in the league.

Canada features 19 players taken in the first three rounds of the 2015 and 2016 drafts. Eleven of those are former first-round picks. Four of those — Dylan Strome (Coyotes), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Mathew Barzal (Islanders), Blake Speers (Devils) — have already played in the NHL this season, even in brief stints. It’s no surprise those four are among Canada’s best in the tournament.

The United States features 16 players taken in the first three rounds in the last two years, including seven former first-rounders. Most of those are from the 2016 NHL entry draft, so none of them have quite made it to the NHL yet. Jack Roslovic has 25 games under his belt in the AHL, though, and it shows.

The players you watch on Thursday night will be names to know for the next decade in hockey.

The USA is college hockey at its best — particularly Terriers hockey

Yale v Boston University Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

All but two of the Americans in the 2017 World Juniors play in the NCAA. A few play for Minnesota, three play for Boston College (Colin White, Joseph Woll, and Casey Fitzgerald) and one each plays for St. Cloud, Ohio State, Providence, Harvard, Denver, Michigan, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Connecticut, and Wisconsin.

But six of them play for Boston University. And it’s no coincidence that chemistry has translated to the World Juniors.

Clayton Keller and Jordan Greenway have been two of the most dynamic offensive threats in the WJC. Keller leads the team with 10 points and Greenway follows close behind with three goals and seven points. Their NCAA teammate, Charlie McAvoy, is arguably the best defender in the tournament. Bellows and Harper haven’t played as well offensively but their roles on the bottom lines are important. The familiarity on the USA roster is Terrierizing opponents. (Sorry.)

Nobody spreads the scoring wealth like Canada

Sweden v Canada: Semifinal - 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The benefit of being Canada in a major international hockey tournament is you have plenty of guys who can make plays. That’s the case again this year, and it’s resulted in four lines of players who can change the game on a whim.

Early in the tournament, Mathew Barzal, Tyson Jost, and Taylor Raddysh were eating up headlines for their scoreboard contributions. As they’ve slowed down, others have stepped up. Julien Gauthier (who scored twice against Sweden) leads with five goals now. Anthony Cirelli has three goals, Dylan Strome has three and defensemen Thomas Chabot and Kale Clague both have five assists. You simply can’t take a shift off against Canada.

There is a whole lot riding on this for Canada

IIHF World Junior Championship - Canada v USA - Gold Medal Game

Canda is 16-8 in gold medal games. A pretty good record! But their recent history has driven their hockey-crazed fan base nuts.

In tournaments where Canada was the host, Canada is just 5-4 in gold medal games. Yes, Canada had an incredible run from 2005-2009 of gold medal wins. But since, heartbreak has been the norm. They’ve taken gold once (2015), silver twice (2010, 2011), bronze once (2012), and missed the medal stand entirely three times (2013, 2014, 2016).

This is a revenge game. Or a redemption game, if you will. A face-saving game. When the USA and Canada last met in the World Juniors gold medal game in 2010, it was one of the best games in WJC history and a shirt-rending defeat for the host country.

Canadians take a lot of pride in their youth players as a symbol of the ongoing strength of Canadian hockey in a hockey world that’s so much more diverse than it was decades ago. Sweden, Finland, and Russia have been just as strong, if not stronger, for the last decade or so. Most recently, the USA has risen to the elite hockey country ranks. Even Denmark made a run this year in the World Juniors.

Sharing that status has never been easy; imagine if Great Britain was suddenly just as good at American Football as the U.S. Or if the USMNT was suddenly as strong as some of Europe’s best countries. That would be weird for those traditional powers.

America should win every Olympic basketball gold medal. Canada thinks it should win every World Juniors gold medal. You shouldn’t begrudge them of that idea. They live and die on this stuff, and that’s OK.

If the U.S. wins, it’s another successful underdog story. If Canada loses, it’s the latest in a concerning run of concerning tournament finishes. Yes, silver is concerning.