- Associated Press - Friday, December 24, 2010

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - 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.

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