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U.S.-Canada showdown set in World Junior hockey finals

GRAND FORKS -- More than 12,000 people will pack Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon, Sask., tonight to see something that's never happened before in the World Junior Championship -- a U.S.-Canada final on North American soil (7 p.m., NHL Network).

There's no shortage of storylines.

It's the five-time defending champion Canadians against the team that last prevented them from winning gold in this tournament (The Americans won in 2004).

It's the home team, whose fans have been passionately cheering them all tournament, against the visiting Americans, who have been jeered in every game.

It's the Canadians, who boast top-five picks Alex Pietrangelo, Brayden Schenn and possible No. 1 overall pick next summer Taylor Hall, against the Americans, who feature UND forward Danny Kristo, Roseau (Minn.) High graduate Mike Lee and coach Dean Blais, who led the Sioux to two national championships.

What more could anybody ask for?

These teams played in the preliminary round and the Canadians beat the Americans in a shootout. The Americans led 4-2 in the third period, but gave up back-to-back goals. The tying one came shorthanded with less than five minutes remaining.

The result added to the heartbreak for the Americans at this tournament.

Since winning gold in 2004 behind MVP Zach Parise, the U.S. has stumbled at crunch time year after year.

In Grand Forks in 2005, they lost the bronze-medal game in overtime. In 2007, they couldn't convert on an overtime power play against Canada in the semifinals and eventually lost in a sudden death shootout. UND's Jonathan Toews buried the U.S. by making three straight in the shootout.

Last year, the Americans built a 3-0 lead against the Canadians in the preliminary round only to watch it slip away. The U.S. didn't medal.

The New Year's Eve game was just another one to add to the list.

But Team USA rebounded from that defeat to hammer Finland 6-2 in the quarterfinals. The Americans upset a loaded Sweden team 5-2 in the semifinals Sunday night to advance to tonight's showdown.

Expect Lee, a freshman at St. Cloud State, to play in goal for the Americans. He has been strong in the American wins in the medal rounds.

"We have gotten better every game of the tournament," Blais said. "We put ourselves right in the position we wanted to be."

The U.S. already has clinched one of the top three finishes ever in this tournament. The Americans beat Canada in 2004 and lost to Canada in 1997 in their only other gold-medal game appearances. Both of those games were played in Europe.