EDMONTON - Canada's anticipated showdown with the United States at the world junior hockey championship has taken on a different flavour.
The Canadians secured a semifinal berth without having to play a game Friday.
A 5-2 loss by the U.S. to the Czech Republic meant no country could catch Canada (3-0) at the top of Pool B. The host country had already beaten Finland, the Czechs and Denmark in the preliminary round.
Canada faces the Americans (1-2) to conclude the preliminary round Saturday knowing they've already made the final four.
The U.S. came into the tournament considered one of Canada's chief rivals for gold. The Americans boasted eight players drafted in the first round by NHL clubs, as well as seven players returning from the team that won the bronze medal in the previous world junior championship.
Saturday's game was expected to determine first in the pool.
The New Year's Eve battle has lost some of its hype, although Rexall Place may be feel free to party knowing their team will play for a medal next week.
"It's going to be something special," Canadian forward Brendan Gallagher predicted. "Obviously so far the crowd has been unbelievable.
"We've been able to get them involved every single game and we need to continue because they're going to be a huge part of us winning this tournament."
One of the keys for Canada on Saturday will be to stay healthy for the medal round. The team lost NHL winger Devante Smith-Pelly for the tournament after he broke his foot in the tournament-opener.
Forward Michael Bournival did not practise Friday after sitting out the previous night's game with the flu. Canadian head coach Don Hay said the Shawinigan Cataractes forward did a light off-ice workout while his teammates skated.
"We're hoping like heck he's going to be ready to play tomorrow," Hay said.
Defenceman Nathan Beaulieu practised at forward after playing that position in Thursday's 10-2 win over Denmark.
Canada is likely to face a surly U.S. team. The Americans ran into red hot Czech goaltender Petr Mrazek who stopped 52 shots in his country's win.
Rexall Place spectators have painted the U.S. as the tournament villain, booing them and cheering wildly for any country playing them. If the Americans let that get under their skin, Saturday's game has the potential to get chippy.
"We want to go in and look after ourselves, take care of business and we know the U.S. is a good hockey team," Hay said. "It will be a great environment in here. It will be very intense and the energy and enthusiasm in the building is going to be outstanding."
Hay did not reveal whether Mark Visentin or Scott Wedgewood would start in net versus the U.S. The coach's practice is to inform his starting goaltender at a team meeting at night and make the news public the following morning.
Saturday's game will be Canada's last before their semifinal next Tuesday in Calgary. They'll face the winner of the quarter-final between the second-place team in Pool A and the team that finishes third in Pool B.
The Canada-U.S. ticket has been a hot one on-line. Two centre-ice seats behind the players' benches were listed at over $3,800 on Hockey Canada's ticket exchange website Friday. On eBay, two in the next section, but closer to the ice, were up over $2,100.
The Canadian players spoke to reporters at the start of the U.S.-Czech game and did not know what the stakes would be for Saturday's game at that point. Canadian captain Jaden Schwartz expected it to be a heated matchup regardless.
"Canada wants to beat the U.S. and the U.S. wants to beat Canada. It's going to be like that no matter what it means," Schwartz insisted.
"The atmosphere is going to be great and the two teams always want to beat each other. I'm sure that's going to be the same, no matter what the situation is."
Finland (1-1) faced Denmark (0-3) in Pool B's later game Friday. A Finland win in regulation meant the U.S. was headed to the relegation round of the tournament.
The American players were frustrated after the Czech game and were directing that emotion into their comments about playing Canada.
"U.S.A.-Canada is the biggest rivalry in this tournament," forward Bill Arnold said. "As much as it stings, we have to bounce back and give it everything we've got to beat Canada because no one wants to lose to them."
Added a livid American captain Jason Zucker: "We're going to beat them. That's what we're going to do. We're going to try our best. We're going out there and not change anything we do. We're going to play."