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Canada and the United States: Allies in world affairs, but not in hockey

Means nothing …

True, but don't tell that to Team Canada or Team USA, who split two World Cup exhibition games over the weekend, a 4-2 American victory in Columbus on Friday followed the next night by a 5-2 Canadian win.

Canada and the United States might be friendly allies when it comes to international affairs, but when it comes to international hockey they get along about as well as North and South Korea.

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There is something about the red Maple Leaf – this particular version more like a bleached marijuana plant – and the Stars and Stripes that seems to discourage any suggestion that they "play nice."

Leave the "friendly" to soccer.

"It's a pretty good rivalry," Team USA head coach John Tortorella had said after the Columbus round. "It kind of just lights itself up."

But it was the Canadian forwards lighting things up the following night at Canadian Tire Centre, where a sellout crowd of 18,787 cheered wildly as, less than a minute into the "meaningless" match, forward John Tavares levelled American pest Ryan Kesler before scoring twice himself on later power plays to lead Canada to a little redemption.

Kesler, who was treated to thunderous booing when introduced, had earned a boarding major and game misconduct the night before in Columbus for his nasty hit on Canadian defenceman Shea Weber.

The early challenge by Tavares appeared to rile the Americans, who soon were into a string of three penalties. Logan Couture scored Canada's first power-play goal, firing a backhand shot while down on his knees past U.S. goaltender Cory Schneider.

Also scoring for Canada were defenceman Jay Bouwmeester – Schneider's one bad goal of the night – and Matt Duchene.

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Duchene's goal was a thing of beauty. Tyler Seguin rushed down the ice with U.S. forward T.J. Oshie virtually hanging off him, yet managed to get the puck over to Duchene, who snapped the puck past Schneider.

Schneider was replaced by Ben Bishop for the third period, while Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford split the game in Canada's net. Holtby gave up goals to defencemen Ryan McDonagh and John Carlson; Crawford was spectacular in relief of Holtby, with dramatic saves off James van Riemsdyk and McDonagh.

Tavares, the Saturday night star, was pleased that his team rebounded for the win. "Even though it's exhibition," he said, "you want to start on the right foot."

The Canadians felt they had played well in Columbus but could not beat goaltender Jonathan Quick.

Back in Ottawa, early doubts about Team Canada's power play were quickly erased, though there still tends to be more passing than required.

Early in the game, Canada's best shooter, Steven Stamkos, found himself on a two-on-one with Couture. Couture slipped a perfect pass to Stamkos, who had the empty net in front of him, only to have Stamkos try to feed the puck back and lose the chance.

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"There's rust coming out of the summer," Duchene said following the game. "We're hitting goal posts, we're missing open nets, little things like that."

In Friday's game, Duchene added, "everything was there but the finishing." On Saturday, for the most part, they finished: "We cleaned up some stuff defensively as well. And we all think it was a pretty good effort."

"We just have to capitalize on a few more of our chances and keep getting better," Tavares said. "I think we did that for the most part. We established our fore-check and we were able to generate some power plays. We jumped out to a good lead and you could see the confidence grow."

"It was important to get better," Canadian head coach Mike Babcock said after the match. "And that that's what we're trying to do each day. A lot of players, myself, have been in a lot of these events, and if you just get better every day you have a chance to be successful in the end. When you read that in the paper you say, 'Yeah-yeah-yeah' [but] that's the truth."

Just before Saturday's game, Babcock had announced that captain Sidney Crosby would not be playing, citing the strain of back-to-back games. It was a move that Tortorella, had he been coaching Canada, might have done himself.

"My biggest concern, for all teams," Tortorella said Saturday, "is playing back-to-back after having only three or four practices."

Tortorella was unusually candid after the second game. He is obviously concerned with the U.S. penalty count and kill, as Canada was given eight power-play opportunities and made good on three of them.

"Where I felt we were struggling with our penalty kill was they were making so many 'seam' plays on us," he said. The U.S. defenders seemed incapable of preventing cross-ice passes from getting through when Canada was on the power play.

He was also clearly disappointed with the play of his captain, Max Pacioretty, who barely played 10 minutes of the game. "He's okay," Tortorella said. "But I need more out of him. I know how he can play. He's got to give me more reason to give him more minutes."

Babcock gave his players Sunday off but they will practise again in Ottawa in Monday before heading to Pittsburgh where, Wednesday night at the Consol Energy Center, Canada will play its third, and final, exhibition match, this time against Alexander Ovechkin and Team Russia.

Next Team Canada meeting with Team USA – certain to be physical, as Saturday's game ended in punches – will be Sept. 20 at Toronto's Air Canada Centre.

That will be the round robin of the World Cup of Hockey.

A real game, with real meaning.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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