Team USA hitting stride

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:38 PM ET

CAMROSE -- In a tournament like the World Junior A Championship, it's not how you start, but where you finish.

The United States stumbled and bumbled out of the gate at the six-team event, falling to Germany in their opener.

But the Americans have been constantly improving, and yesterday played perhaps their most complete game in a 5-1 semifinal victory over Canada East.

TWO PRACTICES

"We only had two practices before our game against Germany," said U.S. forward Josh Balch. "Now we're starting to come together, starting to get to know each other on the ice.

"There's so much talent on our team, we knew once we started to know each other, we would be hard to stop."

Since dropping a 5-3 decision to Germany -- which subsequently went on to finish sixth in the event, getting hammered 8-2 by Russia in the fifth-place game earlier yesterday -- the U.S. has improved exponentially.

In the semifinal, that improvement was evident early on as Balch tipped their opening shot of the game past Canadian goaltender Andrew Hare for the early lead.

Stephen Horyl responded for Canada with a deft redirection of his own later in the period before Matt Donovan restored the U.S. lead before the end of the frame on another tip-in front of Hare.

"I thought the American team was full bang for their buck today," said Canada East head coach Mark Grady. "They skated hard and converted every play.

"Every opportunity they had to get to the loose puck, they got to the loose puck. They sealed the walls, and we kept firing the puck up the walls feeding it right to them.

"The best team won tonight."

A case can be made the Americans are the best team in the tournament, although they'll have to prove it in today's final (6 p.m.) at the EnCana Arena.

Yesterday was the second time they've dispatched Canada East in the event, winning 5-3 in the round robin.

An 8-2 victory over Russia set up the rematch against Canada East, which earned an automatic berth into the semifinal by finishing first in their pool.

"It's a disappointing loss," said Horyl. "It seemed like they had more jump. They won a lot of battles. They were bigger than we were, but we can't use that as an excuse.

"We should have come out harder and used our speed a little bit more, but we didn't."

FORTUITOUS BOUNCE

In the middle period, Josh Birkholz extended the U.S. lead taking a fortuitous bounce off the end boards and snapping a shot past Hare. David Gerths added a fourth later in the frame.

"Canada East is a very good squad, both offensively and defensively," Birkholz said.

"Our game plan going in was just to control the puck down low and always be taking the play to them. Once it was in our zone, we were focusing on getting the puck out and getting it in deep and just sticking with the plan."

In the third, Canada East had a number of early opportunities to cut into the U.S. lead, but were unable to beat goaltender Mike Lee.

"I think we are getting better each game," said U.S. coach Mark Carlson. "I think we still had our lulls, but overall, I thought it was a pretty composed effort."

With the win, the U.S. moves on to the final to face the winner of last night's semifinal between Canada West and Belarus.

Regardless of who the Americans face, it will mark the first time in the three-year history of the tournament that the two Canadian teams won't meet in the final.

Canada West won the first two tournaments, but fell to Belarus in the tournament opener.

"That's going to be Game 5 for us," Carlson said.

"This was Game 4 for us (yesterday) and we told our guys after the game that we just have to keep trying to improve."


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