“I guess it’s “our sport” too, eh?”
“For those unfamiliar, the World Juniors is like March Madness, except the whole country roots for Duke.”
A pair of bang-bang goals scored just 41 seconds apart with less than three and a half minutes to play catapulted the United States to a most sensational 4-2 come-from-behind victory over northern neighbor and North American arch-rival Canada on the opening day of play at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
The defending gold medalists from last year’s WJC were presented with a tremendous opportunity near the end of a tightly contested first period when United States winger Alex DeBrincat, the 18-year-old draft eligible skater who plays in the Canadian junior system for the Erie Otters and leads the entire Ontario Hockey League in goal-scoring at the moment, was assessed a five-minute major for spearing and an automatic game misconduct. DeBrincat reacted rashly to a little shove after the whistle from Canada’s Travis Konecny, the 18-year-old forward from the OHL’s Ottawa 67s who was the 1st round pick (# 24 overall) of the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2015 NHL Draft this past summer, right in front of the Canadian players’ bench near the red line. It is all but assured that DeBrincat will receive some sort of suspension for the IIHF Disciplinary Board and will miss the Americans’ next game against Sweden at the minimum.
Amazingly enough considering all the offensive firepower in the form of a dozen 1st round NHL Draft picks on the roster, Canada never even came close to taking advantage of the five-minute major power play situation and failed to score even a single goal. The United States penalty killers such as Anders Bjork, the 5th round pick of the Boston Bruins who is in his sophomore season at the University of Notre Dame, also did their part. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how this particular development foreshadowed the Canadians’ downfall.
Matthew Barzal, the 18-year-old from the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds who was the 1st round pick (# 16 overall) of the New York Islanders at the 2015 NHL Draft, actually sent Canada in front five minutes into the second period but the United States managed to haul themselves level with less than three and a half minutes to skate before the second intermission. A shot from Sonny Milano of the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters, the 1st round pick (# 14 overall) of the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2014 NHL Draft, whistled wide of the net but ricocheted off the boards and right back out in front for Boston College freshman center Colin White, the 18-year-old from Hanover, Massachusetts, who was the 1st round pick (# 21 overall) of the Ottawa Senators at the 2015 NHL Draft, to backhand into the goal. Nearing the halfway point of the final period, the United States scored what appeared to be an extremely important power play goal when University of Michigan sophomore Zach Werenski, the 18-year-old defenseman whom the Columbus Blue Jackets made the eighth overall player selected in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft, sent a rising wrist shot from the point through a screen.
But Werenski, one of only two U.S. defensemen returning from the 2015 WJC and the American captain in Finland this winter, went to the penalty box, himself, roughly two minutes later and the defending champions responded. Dylan Strome, the 18-year-old who is DeBrincat’s teammate with the OHL’s Erie Otters and was the 3rd overall player taken when picked by the Arizona Coyotes in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft this past summer, skated into a good position on the right hand side of the left faceoff circle and whipped the puck past United States netminder Alex Nedeljkovic, the 19-year-old who was the 2nd round pick (# 37 overall) of the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2014 NHL Draft and just recently traded from the OHL’s Flint to Niagara. And so, with a little more than nine minutes left in regulation, all was left to play for.
Tension began to build as the minutes wore off the clock and then United States defenseman Louis Belpedio from Miami University of Ohio (Rotruck’s school), the 4th round pick of the Minnesota Wild at the 2014 NHL Draft, wristed what seemed to be a routine shot from the blue line. But Canada defenseman Joe Hicketts, the undrafted 19-year-old who is the only blueliner returning from last year’s gold medal squad, deflected the puck out of midair past his own goaltender to give the Americans what proved to be a stunning winner. The United States sealed the deal less than a minute later when Auston Matthews, the 18-year-old superstar in training who skates for Swiss elite league club SC Zurich, shot a loose puck in the crease home after the little black disc had trickled through the pads of Canada netminder Mason McDonald, the 2nd round pick (# 34 overall) of the Calgary Flames at the 2014 NHL Draft, following a shot from the point by Werenski.
Matthews had a goal and an assist against Canada in the 2016 WJC opener for both teams and, in doing so, nearly equaled his total production (one goal, two assists) in five games for the United States squad at the 2015 WJC last season. White also had a goal and an assist against Canada as did the skipper Werenski. American head coach Ron Wilson, the wily NHL veteran who was actually born in Canada but went to Providence College and represented the United States at the annual IIHF World Championships four times during his playing career after becoming a U.S. citizen, showed that he just might have a clue about roster selection after all.
The dramatic triumph at the Helsinki Ice Arena on Boxing Day 2015 marked just the sixth victory for the United States (to go along with three ties and thirty-two losses) in 41 all-time meetings with neighboring Canada since the annual World Junior Championships was officially sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation for the first time in 1977. It is interesting to note that three of these U.S. wins over Canada have come since 2010 and four since the start of the new millennium. In other words, the ice hockey gap between the two North American rivals is narrowing rapidly.
A loss in general, and not just to their upstart adversary from the south, must seem quite unusual to the Canadian people. After all, coming into this highly anticipated clash with the Americans at the 2016 WJC, Canada’s junior national team had won 16 consecutive ‘opening day’ games at the annual tournament for the world’s best players under 20 years of age since being held to a 0-0 tie by Slovakia on home ice in Brandon, Manitoba, at the 1999 WJC (in a match that was actually played on December 27th, 1998). The last time the Canadians lost their first preliminary round game was at the 1998 WJC a year earlier, when host Finland nipped the Canucks 3-2 in a match that was played in Helsinki on Christmas Day (December 25th, 1997).
Altogether, Canada’s record in their first preliminary round game at the annual IIHF World Junior Championships now stands at a still rather impressive thirty-three wins, five losses and two ties.
Categories: Phantoms Hockey