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Wake-Up Call

During the course of my life, I’ve been “still awake” at 4 a.m. many, many more times than I’ve “awakened” at that hour. I’m an avowed night owl, and 4 a.m. is the middle of the night for me. But I actually set my alarm for 4 a.m. today, and what’s more, I actually woke up and ambled into my den at that hour.

I even did it without using the snooze button once, which my wife can confirm is quite an accomplishment for me.

I parked myself on the couch (in a vertical, rather than horizontal fashion) and I clicked the television on to The NHL Network. I was just in time for today’s semifinal game in the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship between Canada and the United States. Because the games are played in Ufa, Russia, some of them are shown live in the wee hours because of the time difference.

If you’re interested in watching these games, your options are: 1) wake up at 4 a.m. and watch the game live. 2) eschew Twitter and sports media all day and watch the taped replay at a much more humane hour.

I chose the first. I have a hard time watching a sporting event when I already know what the outcome was. Kills it for me. And in these times of waiting patiently for morsels of lockout news, blowing off Twitter and sports media for large blocks of the day is really not an option for me.

I didn’t make coffee. I didn’t even turn on the lights. Just sat down and turned the TV on.

Canada is always a huge favorite at these international tournaments while Team USA generally falls somewhere between bronze and also-ran. Since the tournament’s unofficial beginning in 1974, Canada has won the gold medal 15 times – more than any other nation – while the USA has done so twice, in 2004 and 2010. The 2010 U.S. triumph was especially sweet, as the championship victory came on Canadian ice against Canadian opposition with Caps defenseman John Carlson supplying the game-winning goal in overtime.

Armed with this knowledge of tournament history, I took to the couch in my bleary-eyed state knowing I might be forsaking sleep to watch a lopsided game that might not result in the outcome I deemed favorable.

It turns out I was half-right. The game was lopsided, but the outcome was favorable to the point where I haven’t felt the least bit sleepy all day.

Minutes after I sat down – at the 7:18 mark of the first period – Team USA captain Jake McCabe staked his team to a 1-0 lead with a primary assist from Caps prospect Riley Barber. Later in the period, Blake’s second goal of the game came from nearly the same spot – the very high slot – and it ended up being the difference-maker in a 5-1 Team USA win.

The Americans were amazing for the first 40 minutes. They won the battles in the corners, came away with the loose pucks, owned the face-off dot, had the edge in physical and territorial play and seemed to have more jet in their strides. When those 40 minutes were completed, Team USA owned an improbable 4-0 lead and it had chased Canadian goaltender Malcolm Subban to the bench.

Subban was dented for four goals on just 16 shots, but he was also victimized by some screens and lackluster defense in front of him. Jordan Binnington took over midway through the second period, and although the Americans kept buzzing, he held them at bay for most of the way.

Canada finally solved Team USA netminder John Gibson on a strange shorthanded goal that arguably shouldn’t have counted at 4:03 of the third. The Canadians began to turn the territorial tide in the third, and getting a second goal might have made for a different outcome in a tournament in which improbable comebacks have been previously achieved with surprising regularity.

It didn't happen today.

Gibson was superb in the third, continually frustrating the best efforts of the Canadian shooters. Each team had 16 shots on net in the third period, but the Canadians had the better of the prime scoring chances. Ryan Strome was robbed once in the first and once in the third, and Gibson had him looking roofward after both of those bids. Canada never could get that “fulcrum” goal that it so badly needed.

With just a few minutes left in the game, Team USA’s John Gaudreau slipped past the last Canadian at the far blueline, skated in and scored a pretty goal – his second of the game – to make it a 5-1 game and extinguish any slim hope of a Canadian comeback. It was the lone blemish on Binnington, who made 25 stops on the 26 shots he faced in relief.

Gaudreau and McCabe each had two goals and an assist. Gibson was impenetrable when it mattered most. The entire team skated with purpose and resolve throughout the game, and the Americans were able to avenge a 2-1 loss to Canada sustained in round-robin play.

Team USA now takes on Sweden for the gold on Saturday morning while Canada will face Russia for the bronze. This time though, the Team USA tilt doesn’t start until 8 a.m.

We can all sleep in, but don’t you miss it. It’s on The NHL Network and on starting at 8, and the game pits Barber against fellow 2012 Capitals draftees Filip Forsberg and Christian Djoos, both of whom represent Team Sweden. It's hockey at its purest, untainted by business and bucks.