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US prepares to defend World Junior hockey title

No point asking Team Canada coach Dave Cameron how much losing the World Junior Hockey Championship title to the United States — and on home soil, no less — still stings a year later.

"What do you think?" Cameron bluntly said Friday, as he and his team attended a pep rally in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The U.S. has the gold. And the Canadians want it back.

The trouble is, there are a number of teams, particularly Sweden and Russia, that have the potential of derailing the much-anticipated ideal scenario of a U.S.-Canada rematch for the title as the 10-nation tournament opens in Buffalo on Sunday.

And that's why Cameron and U.S. coach Keith Allain are careful to note how premature it is to discuss payback or repeating after the Americans ended Canada's five-year title run with a 6-5 overtime win in the title game at Saskatchewan in January.

"You can't look at the end result, the gold," said Cameron, who returns for a third straight year. "The margin between teams is small, and we can't afford to look by anybody."

Allain has enough on his plate already without having to worry about Canada. He's busy trying to deflect the high expectations placed on a team that's pegged as the favorite despite having only won the tournament twice in 34 years and never won a medal the four previous times the event has been held in the U.S.

And he was particularly unhappy this past week after the Americans dropped consecutive shootout decisions in their first two pre-tournament exhibition games.

"Maybe this will dispel any notion that we're favored, that's for sure," Allain said Tuesday, following a 3-2 loss to the Czech Republic. "I like my team, don't get me wrong. And I think that when push comes to shove we'll be there in the end. But I don't know how you can look at these games and say, 'They're going to run away with the tournament.'"

The U.S. bounced back with a 6-1 win over Norway on Thursday, and will open the tournament against Finland on Sunday.

The Americans return eight players, including goalie Jack Campbell. They also feature nine first-round NHL draft picks, and six second-rounders, including forward Jeremy Morin, who has two goals and an assist in nine games with the Chicago Blackhawks this season.

Having experienced players is a big help. So is the confidence they received in beating Canada last year.

"It's something I'll never forget. We were able to do something great," returning forward Jason Zucker said. "In order to beat that team showed that we can win. That was huge for us, and we're hoping to carry that over."

The Americans have a much easier road. They're in a pool rounded out by Switzerland, Finland, Slovakia and Germany — four opponents, who have combined to win only 13 tournament medals, including Finland's two golds.

With a tournament-best 15 titles, the Canadians face a much more daunting task. They open against Russia (12 titles, including nine as the Soviet Union) on Sunday, and must also face two-time champion Czech Republic and Sweden, which has finished second or third in each of the past three years, and won gold in 1981.

The Canadians feature 15 NHL first-round draft picks, and will have the edge in fan support. With Buffalo bordering southern Ontario, tournament organizers said about two-thirds of the 300,000 tickets sold went to Canadians.

But support also means additional pressure from a hockey-mad nation with a "Gold or Bust" mentality, and still reveling in Canada's overtime gold-medal win over the U.S. at the Vancouver Games in February.

"Everybody expects that of us, and I think we have the team to win it all," said Canada captain Ryan Ellis, who is competing in his third straight tournament. "We're pretty confident going in."

The Canadians won all three of their pre-tournament exhibition games, capped by a 5-2 win over Finland on Thursday.

Sweden, which won bronze last year, has plenty of depth in talent, including forward Gabriel Landeskog, who plays for Kitchener, and was the Ontario Hockey League's top-rated prospect in the NHL Central Scouting rankings in October.

"Our goal is to win the tournament, so if you're going to win the tournament, you have to beat all of the teams," Swedish captain Anton Lander said. "So it's good to be in a group where the teams are really good. We'll see what happens."

NOTES: Team Canada was scheduled to have dinner at Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff's home on Friday. Ruff was an assistant coach on Canada's Olympic team at Vancouver. ... The top two teams from each pool advance directly to the semifinals on Jan. 3. The gold and bronze medal games are set for Jan. 5. ... Canada and the U.S. only have a chance to meet in the semis or medal games.