Zibanejad makes first impression in Rangers preseason win over Islanders

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AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Twitter.

There was preseason hockey played at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. It was the first game played by a revamped Blueshirts. With it being the first one, it was a mix of roster players and minor leaguers who took on and defeated the Islanders’ B squad 5-2.

The best Rangers were forwards Chris Kreider (goal, assist) and newcomer Mika Zibanejad (power play goal, 2 assists). Playing on the same line with Russian prospect Pavel Buchnevich, they meshed well. Buchnevich didn’t look out of place registering three shots and getting chances while adjusting throughout.

Following a shaky start that saw no one pick up new Islander Jason Chimera in front for a rebound goal on starter Magnus Hellberg (1 GA on 13 shots), the Rangers went to work on the power play which looked much improved due to having a right-handed shot on the off wing. It was that different look that allowed Zibanejad to one-time home a Adam Clendening pass for a power play goal. He blasted one top shelf by Isles’ starter Jean-Francois Berube, who went the distance permitting four goals on 30 shots.

In particular, Kreider played one of his strongest games. He did everything well including hustling back on the back check to prevent an Isles’ chance. Looking even stronger and faster, he dominated a shift and scored from distance on another assist from Clendening, who had a good game. If he can carry his steady play through when the season begins, we could be seeing the best from Kreider.

Featuring a lineup that included regulars Dan Girardi, Brady Skjei and Marc Staal, the defense was okay for the most part. Skjei paired with Girardi while Staal worked with Clendening. The third pair was Mat Bodie with Dylan McIlrath, who scored a goal with his big shot in the third off a clean Zibanejad face off win.

Another player who impressed was Brandon Pirri. The offensive center assisted on the first goal and converted on the power play off a beautiful rush and backhand saucer pass from Zibanejad, which was started by Kreider. Even though he’s on his third roster in a year, Pirri has good hands and is capable of providing offense on one of the bottom lines.

Speaking of which, coach Alain Vigneault naturally played the fourth line a lot. On a night when Girardi and Staal wore A’s, Tanner Glass also wore an A. While some might chuckle over that, it was a good reward for a team first guy who remains a long shot to make the roster. Especially given the improved depth with key additions Nathan Gerbe, Michael Grabner, Josh Jooris and Pirri. Jooris only took four shifts before leaving with a groin injury. He’s day-to-day according to Vigneault and there will be a call up for Thursday against the Devils.

Eventually, Oscar Lindberg will be back too. There’s no reason to rush him. He can take his time. When he does return, that’ll be a nice bonus. Lindberg proved he is capable of playing key minutes at even strength and shorthanded. He also has size and goes to the net. Plus he’s a decent center who can win draws. You can never have enough of those.

As for that fourth line, Glass played with former Hab/Canuck Max Lapierre and Chris Brown. Lapierre is here on a tryout under his former coach. A well known pest who isn’t the most popular player, he spent last season in Switzerland and Sweden. He didn’t look bad. But the idea he can make the roster seems unlikely even if Vigneault knows him.

Forward prospect Robin Kovacs also played. He wore number 71. He’s likely ticketed for Hartford which should be good for his development. Marek Hrivik also dressed playing over 18 minutes. He centered a line going even in 14 draws. Malte Stromwall and Nicklas Jensen also played.

One of the best parts of the game was when Mackenzie Skapski replaced Hellberg. The fan favorite was cheered. Ranger fans never forget. As a 20-year old emergency call up two years ago, he won his only two NHL starts both against the Sabres. Last season was a rough one for him after undergoing hip surgery. Predictably, he struggled spending time in the ECHL and AHL. In his return at least in a Blueshirt, Skapski was sharp making a few sparklers including a nice kick out on a tough Isles’ chance. He finished with 17 saves and heard chants.

After a sloppy second in which they got the lone goal on Pirri’s one-time blast from Zibanejad, the third was a joy to watch. It was end to end skating with some good possession time for the Rangers. There weren’t many whistles.

The Isles finally solved Skapski when Nick Leddy had a shot go off the Ranger netminder and in. Former first round pick Matthew Barzal set it up as the Islanders had the Rangers hemmed in. The center played over 22 minutes leading all Isles’ forwards. Michael Dal Colle also played over 13 minutes. Andrew Ladd played on the top line and was in front on Leddy’s tally. Initially, he was credited with the goal. But replays showed he didn’t touch the puck. He should be a good addition to the Islanders.

P.A. Parenteau wore Matt Martin’s number 17. Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier also played. Both Gionta and Parenteau had assists. Brock Nelson also dressed as did Alan Quine.

The Isles had three regulars on the back end including Leddy, Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan.

Prior to the game, MSG held a moment of silence for FDNY chief captain Mike Fahy of Battalion 19. He died in the line of duty during an explosion in the Bronx yesterday morning. Six police officers and nine firemen were injured during a marijuana-growing operation exploded. A horrible tragedy. He was a father of three children. Wishing all the best to his family.ūüė¶

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Crosby leads Canada past Russia into World Cup Finals

 

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Captain Clutch: Sidney Crosby dominated again with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron in Canada’s 5-3 semifinal win over Russia to send them to the World Cup of Hockey Finals. AP Photo via Getty Images by Penguins Twitter.

The world’s best player continued to dominate this international tournament. Sidney Crosby’s three points helped lead Canada past Russia 5-3 and into the World Cup Finals. At the start, he was put on a line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. They have been by far the best line in the winner take all event in Toronto.

The cohesive trio were at it again combining on three of Canada’s five goals. Crosby scored his third of the tournament by absolutely undressing the Russian defense. After a clean strip of the puck, he made a world class deke on Sergei Bobrovsky before whistling a backhand top shelf for the game’s first goal.

It was all Canada in a lopsided first period that saw them control every facet. Remarkable puck possession along with superb checking kept the counter attacking skilled Russians at bay. Alexander Ovechkin had no time or space to do anything. In fact, he didn’t even attempt a shot until the third. He was so well checked that the Caps’ superstar was rendered useless. It didn’t help that the Russian coaching staff didn’t force feed him. An oddity that has angered players in past tournaments.

Bobrovsky was phenomenal at turning away glorious Canadian chances time and again. He finished with 42 saves. Many of the spectacular variety. For two periods, the former Vezina winner who is used to seeing plenty of shots on the Blue Jackets gave his country a chance to pull the upset. He committed highway robbery several times with his best save coming on Marchand with the game tied early in the third.

At one point, it was so lopsided that it was hard to fathom how Russia had come back to tie the contest halfway through the second. Nikita Kucherov exploited a Canadian pinch off a defensive draw and exploded towards the net on a two-on-one, making no mistake beating Carey Price far post. The shots were 26-8 in favor of Canada.

Unlike Team USA, Russia doesn’t need a lot of chances to score. Finally awake, they actually went ahead on a great passing play started behind the net by former NHLer Evgeny Dadonov. The ex-Panther who plays in the KHL slipped a Ryan O’Reilly check and spun off to find Ivan Telegin for a one-timer in the slot that was deflected home by Evgeny Kuznetsov. That made it 2-1 with 3:36 left in the second.

Plenty of time for the Crosby line to strike back. It was again a relentless Crosby who made the play. After centering from behind the net for Bergeron, he stole the puck from Andrei Markov and in one motion dished across for a wide open Marchand for an easy finish 1:12 later to draw Canada even.

Undeterred, Russia nearly went back ahead in the closing seconds. Vladimir Tarasenko threw a puck from the side off Crosby and dangerously close to the goal with 8.8 seconds remaining. But it didn’t go in. Tempers flared after the buzzer with a scrum that had Marchand and Evgeni Malkin coming together.

At the start of the third, Canada sent out its top line after Jonathan Toews’ unit neutralized Ovechkin. It didn’t take long for them to expose Russia. First, a on rushing Bergeron had Marchand for a lay-up. But a sprawling Bobrovsky reached out with his glove extended for a Statue of Liberty highlight reel save. The stop of the game. But after getting out of their zone, here came Crosby dropping one off for Marchand, whose shot sneaked past Bobrovsky’s glove 1:16 into the third. It was one he should’ve had. But who could blame him?

On a broken play in front, Corey Perry was able to get to the loose change in front and send a rebound upstairs with Bobrovsky down and out- increasing to 4-2. Sharks’ teammates Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic drew the helpers.

Islanders’ captain John Tavares finally got a goal. He had been dangerous all night. This time on a nice transition, he took a Getzlaf drop and sniped upstairs thru a screen to put the game away.

As for Ovechkin, he was only able to get one shot on net. The Canadian defense is so good that there’s virtually no room. Between Norris winner Drew Doughty, Vlasic, Jay Bouwmeester, Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo and Brent Burns, they play perfectly with plenty of help from two-way forwards such as Bergeron, Crosby, Marchand and Toews.

To their credit, Russia didn’t give up. They played till the end with Artemi Panarin getting credit for the game’s final tally at 19:51 on what looked like a hand pass. It wasn’t reviewable. So, the final bookkeeping was Canada 5, Russia 3.

Notes: Pavel Datsyuk was a scratch due to an injury which hindered his skating. Sad that North Americans couldn’t see the Russian great one final time before he returns home to the KHL. … Russia did finish with 34 shots at least forcing Price to make 31 stops. … Russian tandem Markov and Alexei Emelin had rough nights each on for three goals against. Dmitry Orlov was their best defenseman ringing a loud shot off the crossbar. … The second semifinal is at 1 PM tomorrow with Team Europe taking on Sweden. I’m picking the upset. Just got a hunch Europe will prevail.

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Rangers open training camp with new faces

Pavel Buchnevich

Pavel Buchnevich is one of the new bright faces the Rangers are looking for good things from.

While Team USA was finishing off a sad World Cup of Hockey losing all three games for the first time on the international stage, NHL training camps finally opened up. As Devil blogger Hasan noted, there have been plenty of distractions. For myself too with such excitement over the Yankees and Gary Sanchez. Plus the Giants actually starting 2-0.

I have also enjoyed seeing the game’s best players even if our country embarrassed itself. But the overreaction from the media is just that. Had they had some of those young talented players from Team North America, we’re singing a different tune. ¬†If only the kids featuring McDavid, Eichel, Gaudreau, Matthews, Gostisbehere, Gibson, Murray had made the semifinals which begin Saturday night with a throwback classic between Russia and Canada in Toronto. The second semi will be Sunday night with Sweden against surprising Europe which still features Ranger holdovers Henrik Lundqvist going up against Mats Zuccarello. Fun times.

As for the rest of the current ’15-16 version of the Rangers, it’ll include captain Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan. Both of who disappointed in the tournament. At least McDonagh led the Americans with two goals. But he was beaten for several goals against. A disturbing pattern we saw last season. I sure hope the popular captain gets back to being better defensively. If he doesn’t, it could be a long year.

Without question, McDonagh must bounce back. Especially with a defensive corps still counting on Dan Girardi and Marc Staal to return to form after much needed time off. Both have given their blood, guts, heart and soul to the cause that included three Final Fours and one Stanley Cup Final appearance. Each struggled mightily with the wear and tear catching up. How coach Alain Vigneault and new assistant Jeff Beukeboom manages each will be the key. Staal remains one of the team’s best penalty killers. Girardi at times too. He must be managed five-on-five when it comes to match-ups. Last year, opponents took advantage of his lack of speed. He also played hurt.

The Rangers now have eight defensemen including former Avalanche Nick Holden, who GM Jeff Gorton picked up for a 2017 fourth round pick. Where does the 29-year old left skating D fit in on a blue line that also returns Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei and veteran Kevin Klein? It’s worth noting that Holden played all 82 for Colorado in ’15-16 and 78 the previous year. Adam Clendening was also added or insurance.

Subtracting the very skilled Keith Yandle will hurt. When they moved his negotiating rights to the Panthers, it was an admission that they couldn’t afford him. For all the fuss made over what former GM Glen Sather gave up including Anthony Duclair plus first and second round picks, Yandle’s value offensively will be missed. Despite being misused at times by Vigneault, he put up a team-leading 42 assists and 47 points, which topped all Ranger defensemen. He now tries to fulfill the big contract Florida gave him. They sure will miss his first pass and on the power play.

Also gone is Dan Boyle, who should have a more peaceful retirement without having to deal with the loathsome Larry Brooks. Undoubtedly, the defense will be younger. Look for Skjei to establish himself in the top four. A strong skater and puck moving D with solid defensive skills and offensive capability, the former first round pick should see plenty of ice-time. It’ll be interesting to see how he grows.

Vigneault was sure to mention that he likes how McIlrath has improved defensively. The behemoth is as tough as they come. He brings the size, strength and toughness the back end has lacked since Mike Sauer’s career ended due to a Dion Phaneuf hit. Nothing against Holden. But it sure would be nice to see McIlrath stick and gain more trust from the coach. Perhaps having a familiar assistant in Beukeboom, who also developed Skjei will help.

Offensively, Stepan now is the man. With Derick Brassard gone to Ottawa for a package that brought back younger and bigger Mika Zibanejad, it falls on Stepan to be more consistent as the top center. While he’ll never be confused with Crosby, Toews, Getzlaf, Backstrom, Tavares, the heady Stepan remains one of the team’s most complete forwards. Capable of playing power play and penalty kill while being reliable at even strength, this is the time for the 26-year old to prove he can approach 60-70 points. Even with missing 10 games last season, he still wound up with a career best 22 goals with 31 assists. Unlike most of his teammates, Stepan scored twice in a one-sided first round exit to eventual Cup champion Pens.

Stepan will need help from Chris Kreider, who is capable of more than the 21-22-43 line he got in his third year. Now signed thru 2020 making $4.625 million, it’s time for the talented big power forward to become more consistent. He has all the tools. Maybe not the best hands. But it’s still my belief that he can score 25-30 goals and produce 50-or-more points. That assumes he’ll go to the net more and be a nuisance. It also means being a factor for most shifts.

Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller will continue to be looked upon for production. While Year 2 wasn’t as good for the pass-first Hayes, the puck possession forward could wind up with some talented young players if top prospects Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey prove themselves. As for Miller, he stepped up with career marks in goals (22), assists (21) and points (43) to earn a bridge deal worth a cap hit of $2.625 million. A effective forechecker who can complement any line with his energy and skill set, Miller looks to improve in the top six.

Zibanejad is at a similar stage as Brassard when he was acquired from Columbus in the Gaborik deal. He’s 23 and has put up consecutive seasons of 20-or-more goals totaling a career best 30 assists and 51 points in his fourth year with Ottawa. The bigger Swede goes 6-2, 222. Like Brassard, who fared well on Broadway becoming known as Big Game Brass, Zibanejad is a former first round pick who went sixth overall. Is that a good omen? We shall see.

Once he gets done with the World Cup, Zuccarello will return. Last year’s leading scorer remains the most popular skater. After Lundqvist, nobody is more beloved than “Zucc!” The pint sized Norwegian is 29. He remains a creative forward who makes players around him better. Watching him feather a perfect outlet for an exciting Leon Draisaitl overtime winner in Group play is what makes Zuccarello so fun. He also will battle anyone as he proved in blocking a McDonagh shot and checking him in Europe’s 3-0 upset of USA. If he can hit 25 goals and 60 points again, that would be a successful year.

The key player left out of the discussion is Rick Nash. How will he respond to no Brassard? Nash could find himself with Stepan and Kreider on the top line. Or will Vigneault stick with Kreider, Stepan and Zuccarello. Obviously, Nash had an injury plagued ’15-16 only scoring 15 times in 60 games. However, he did total two goals and two helpers in the postseason. The 32-year old three-time 40-goalscorer should be motivated. The Rangers need him to score at least 30 and stay healthy. Having Nash on the ice also can aid Kreider and help with Buchnevich and Vesey.

The top nine shapes up to be pretty good. If you can pencil in Stepan, Zibanejad and Hayes as your three centers with a mix of Kreider, Miller, Nash, Zuccarello, Buchnevich and Vesey, that would be a marked improvement. That also assumes Buchnevich and Vesey are ready for top nine roles. If not, Vigneault favorite Jesper Fast can be plugged in on any line. Though I’d prefer to see him on the fourth line in a checking role.

Gorton also made some astute signings by adding speed and depth as well as penalty killing to a unit that needs it. Both Michael Grabner and Nathan Gerbe can kill penalties with Grabner always a shorthanded threat. If only he could finish some of those chances. Also signing Brandon Pirri on the cheap and adding former Calgary energizer Josh Jooris are good moves.

To be frank, last year’s roster had no depth. With Oscar Lindberg out until probably mid-November recovering from surgery, Gorton made the most out of his cap and freed up space by moving Brassard and getting a young talented player in Zibanejad. All these moves should make it easier for Vigneault to roll four lines.

Tanner Glass has a year left at a million. While he improved last year, he should only be used against tough opponents who could take runs at our best players. With so many more forwards in camp and former Vigneault fave Maxim Lapierre in on a tryout, the odds are long for Glass to make the roster.

Goaltending will be the same. Once Lundqvist finishes with Sweden, he returns as the man. It’s getting late already for the now 34-year old Swedish King. As hard as it is to believe, Lundqvist has been here a decade. He enters his 11th season. Last year, it was his brilliant play that allowed a flawed team to get off to a great start. Without it, they don’t sniff the playoffs. Somehow, because his form fell off due to a decline defensively which included most of our forwards taking naps which further explains why Brassard is gone, Lundqvist came under criticism. He still won 35 games and had a 2.48 goals-against-average, .920 save percentage and five shutouts. He faced the most average shots-per-game and more high danger chances.

When it comes to Lundqvist, never bet against him. You know he’ll come in with something to prove. He played 65 games last year. Too many. Look for the staff to lighten the load. Antti Raanta proved to be a steady backup winning 11 games with a 2.25 GAA and .919 save percentage. Both netminders stood on their head. One thing on Lundqvist. He was pulled more than I can recall. That will be stored away.

So, what to expect from camp? Outside of some intriguing competitions at forward with both Buchnevich and Vesey looking to make the mark, keep an eye on Robin Kovacs. The 19-year old Swede who the Blueshirts selected in the third round in 2015 signed and is expected to play pro in North America. He will be 20 in mid-November. Supposedly, the right wing has tons of skill and speed.

As far as other young D in the system, Ryan Graves had a good rookie season in Hartford posting nine goals and 12 assists with 53 penalty minutes. The 21-year old lefty skating defenseman is a former 2013 fourth round pick.

Cristoval Nieves, Malte Stromwall, Nicklas Jensen and Ahti Oksanen all are players to follow. Nieves played four years for Michigan and debuted late with the Wolf Pack putting up five points in eight contests. Stromwall was a big scorer in Swedish-1 for AIK last year. Jensen came over from Vancouver for Emerson Etem and had a good worlds for Denmark. Oksanen was a college free agent signing out of Boston University. The Finnish defenseman developed offensively his final two years.

The camp also includes Ryan Gropp, Ty Ronning, Adam Tambellini and Sean Day. Brandon Halverson is one of seven goalies which includes the recovering MacKenzie Skapski. A player to root for. Hopefully, he can put together a better ’16-17.

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On the first day of fall, camps are upon us

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With the newest made-for-TV incarnation of the World Cup going on, it’s almost gone overlooked that all thirty NHL teams including¬†the Devils are opening training camp this week. ¬†Of course in the Devils’ case it still feels a bit like the B team with coach John Hynes and franchise players Cory Schneider and Kyle Palmieri still in Toronto to help preside over team USA’s quick burial at the World Cup. ¬†All three will probably be back by the Devils’ first preseason game next Monday though. ¬†Admittedly I only had a passing interest in the World Cup in part because Cory and Palmieri were bit players at best, which some people were relieved about. ¬†In that vein, I’m not one of those fans that say ‘well I don’t want my guys playing in a meaningless tournament!’. ¬†What do hockey fans think preseason games are? ¬†You can just as easily suffer a serious injury in camp or during preseason than you can during this de facto All-Star competition.

It is nice to have the coach back for the beginning of camp though, especially since for the first time in a few years the Devils actually enter camp with a sense of optomism and without any dark clouds hanging over the franchise. ¬†It had gotten old since basically the end of 2010 wondering about ownership problems, key players leaving for home, a contreversial contract penalty, a lockout that didn’t do us any favors and last but not least cleaning out¬†an entire generation of successful Devils hockey with the departures of franchise icons Lou Lamoriello, Martin Brodeur and many others. ¬†While last season’s Devils fell far short of the playoffs in the end, for a few months they showed flashes of what this new generation wants to become and the offseason trade for Taylor Hall and long-term extension for Jersey native Palmieri just makes the present and future that much brighter.

That’s not to say this team’s a Cup contender or anything like that. ¬†There are still flaws that need to be addressed. ¬†While acquiring Hall was much-needed for an offense that was particularly dreadful 5-on-5 last year, dealing Adam Larsson created a hole on a defense which¬†wasn’t all that proven to begin with. ¬†Signing Ben Lovejoy from the Penguins helps but this team’s going to need a couple of Damon Severson, John Moore, Jon Merrill and rookie Steve Santini to step up and become top four defensemen, or GM Ray Shero‘s going to have to go outside the organization for camp/in-season help.

Offensively this team can’t be worse than it’s been the last few years, and along with Hall it’s almost certain 2015 first-rounder Pavel Zacha (above) will make the team, especially if he’s being tried as center, where the Devils could use another legit top nine player to go along with Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac. ¬†At wing the Devils should be fine – if healthy – which applies both to vet Mike Cammalleri who missed nearly half the season last year after leading the club in scoring early, and also to new acquisition Beau Bennett, another former first-rounder who was acquired from Shero’s old organization at the draft. ¬†Bennett will be competing with holdover Devante Smith-Pelly for a spot at RW2 in the top six. ¬†One name I haven’t mentioned is franchise icon Patrik Elias, still seemingly in limbo waiting to get healthy enough from surgery to try skating before officially coming back…or hanging them up after a brilliant career. ¬†Elias represents the last tangible link to the glory days, unless you count goaltender coach Chris Terreri or Albany assistant Sergei Brylin.

Although there’s no question about either the starting goaltender or about Schneider’s quality as a top player at his position, there is a question over who’s going to be the backup this year. ¬†Keith Kinkaid‘s filled that role for the most part over the last couple years but Scott Wedgewood came on last year in Albany and had a few nice starts up here late in the season, making it a legit competition for the backup job. ¬†Especially since the loser will have to clear waivers to get sent back down to Albany. ¬†Not only is there a question over who’ll be the backup but there’s a question how good the backup will be and whether the Devils will have to upgrade that area. ¬†Kinkaid after a nice rookie season fell off dramatically last year, and Wedgewood’s still almost totally unproven at the NHL level. ¬†If the Devils are going to contend for their first playoff spot since the 2012 lockout, games played by backup(s) could prove decisive in the end.

One of the changes the last couple years I do like is the Devils participating in a prospects challenge with the Sabres and Bruins last weekend, essentially giving many of their key younger players a couple of additional games, against players who have similar age and talent. ¬†Extra evaluation time and practice at game speed is always a good thing for inexperienced players. ¬†Our preseason’s also seven games this year as opposed to six, including an additional game with the Panthers at West Point, NY five days before the same two teams open their respective regular seasons in Florida on the 13th.

Not that I’ve completely bought in to being excited about the opening of camp yet, in fact this blog is the most I’ve thought about hockey in months. ¬†Perhaps that’s the price of being a multi-sport fan. ¬†I don’t have the same excitement over camp opening in hockey, football camps opening or Spring Training that fans with undivided attention will. ¬†Take this month for instance. ¬†While hockey fans all across North America are breathlessly awaiting camp updates and who’s playing on what line in the first practice, I’m watching my Mets try to hold onto a Wild Card spot in an exciting race despite a pitching staff held together with spit and duct tape, and also watching the beginning of the NFL season with the Jets having a talented team run up against a horrendous early schedule.

If it wasn’t for football or baseball I no doubt would be more breathlessly anticipating Devils camp. ¬†Maybe to a degree the older you get the more jaded you get about preseason and you just want the season to get underway too. ¬†Don’t get me wrong it is nice to finally have something to start anticipating after basically a five-month offseason. ¬†Amazingly I have been to Newark three times since the season ended though, a couple of times for season ticket holder Q/A’s (one with coach¬†Hynes and first-rounder Michael McLeod, another with new acquistion Hall) and once for a development camp scrimmage in July. ¬†By the time I go to the home opener on October 18 though, it’ll be more than six months since actually being at the Rock for a game itself.

Of course due¬†to three lockouts in two decades, all hockey fans have become conditioned to long waits when neccesary (thanks again Gary). ¬†And as a Devil fan I’m starting to become too accustomed to long offseasons that start before the actual end of the previous season.

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World Cup: North America dominates Finland 4-1

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Youth Is Served North America Style: North America captain Connor McDavid celebrates a goal in a dominant 4-1 win over proven Finland in their first game in Group B of the World Cup at Air Canada Centre. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NBC Sports.

Of all the participants in this 2016 World Cup, the one with the most buzz is the 23-and-under Team North America. And for good reason. Never before has a roster boasted so much young talent in an international competition. It features 2015 first overall and second overall picks Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel along with 2013 first, second and fourth overall selections Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin.

For good measure, North America also has 2014 number one overall pick and Calder winner Aaron Ekblad and 15th overall pick Dylan Larkin. Not to mention 2016 first overall pick American Auston Matthews, who is playing in front of Toronto at the Air Canada Centre where he’ll star as a Maple Leaf. The magnitude of such a roster which also possesses Pens’ Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray and the Ghost, Shayne Gostisbehere makes them a must see. It also features former Calder winner Johnny Gaudreau and Brandon Saad along with backup John Gibson.

So, when they finally took the ice at 8 PM under the bright lights in the hockey capital, North America gave a showing worthy of captivating hockey fans throughout the world. In easily beating an accomplished Finland team 4-1, they sent a message to the rest of the tournament. What they lack in experience they more than make up for in speed, skill and talent.

By the middle of the second period, you had to feel sorry for Pekka Rinne. He was under siege. North America so dominated in possession time as well as shots (43-25) and scoring chances that they made a very experienced Finn team that also boasted gifted 2016 second overall pick Patrik Laine look average. They were no match for the game’s brightest future stars.

It didn’t take long for the youngest squad to establish itself. Using superior speed and playmaking, they pinned the Finns in for a majority of the first period. It was a brilliant Matthews rush around Rasmus Ristolainen that led to the game’s first goal. Matthews took a McDavid feed in the neutral zone and skated past Ristolainen and in firing a tough low shot on Rinne which resulted in a persistent Eichel steering in the rebound for a power play goal at 5:03.

They easily could’ve had two or three more. Rinne was fortunate a couple of times with one loose puck standing on the goal line while another apparent North America goal was properly reversed due to interference from Mark Scheifele. McDavid thought he had one when he pushed the puck on the line and then saw Rinne knock it in after attempting to freeze play. However, Finland’s challenge was a good one. It showed that an aggressive Scheifele knocked a defenseman into Rinne which resulted in no goal. Something that amused ESPN analyst Brett Hull. It might have something to do with his Stanley Cup clincher for the Stars in ’99 over the Sabres.

An on-rushing Gaudreau also rang one off the crossbar moments later. While Murray displayed his postseason form turning Finland aside when they got shots on goal, Rinne didn’t have time to breathe. He did have some luck on some chances. The accomplished Nashville goalie also had trouble controlling pucks. A lot of it had to do with the relentless pressure from North America. He did manage to make a few big saves for the highlights including a nice kick out of a tricky Matthews low shot and then denied a rebound point blank. He played all 60 minutes stopping 39 of 43.

How dangerous was North America? All 18 skaters registered a shot paced by Matthews’ five. For someone who just celebrated his 19th birthday the day before, he didn’t show any nerves and just played. The Leafs have a bright future ahead which also includes former number one picks Mitch Marner and William Nylander¬†plus¬†Kasperi Kapanen, who came over in the deal with Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel.

Finland couldn’t deny Gaudreau from scoring a legit goal in the second. He was able to brilliantly redirect a Colton Parayko point shot past Rinne for a 2-0 lead. Larkin set the play up. The roof caved in when a Gostisbehere rush led to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and then Drouin finishing off a loose scramble.

Finally, MacKinnon got inside position on Olli Maatta to rebound home a Parayko shot which made it 4-zip at 14:37. The crowd was going bananas. The best young Canadians and Americans dominated a proven Finnish team that featured Mikko Koivu, Jussi Jokinen, Valterri Filppula, Sami Vatanen along with young stars Aleksander Barkov, Jori Lehtera and Joonas Donskoi.

By the time Filppula tallied for Finland from Jokinen and Maple Leaf Leo Komarov, it was too little, too late. The damage had been done. They’ll next play bitter nemesis Sweden on Tuesday with in all likelihood, Henrik Lundqvist back.

As for North America, the young guns will get tested by Russia in a back-to-back Monday night in what basically is their home barn when Canada isn’t playing. If they succeed, they can put themselves in position to potentially see Canada in the knockout stage. The game is at 8 PM on ESPN. Don’t miss it.

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WCH2016: Sweden holds off Ovechkin, Russia 2-1

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As Alexander Ovechkin celebrates what he thought was the tying goal with seven seconds left, the refs were correct waving it off as Russia’s comeback falls short to Sweden 2-1 in the World Cup. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy The Score.

In the most competitive game of the tournament, Sweden held off Russia 2-1 in the first game of Group B play. Even without Henrik Lundqvist, who was a late scratch due to sickness, the more detail oriented Swedes were in control throughout. On goals from Gabriel Landeskog and Victor Hedman, they blanketed a very talented Russian team until the final minute.

With Vancouver backup Jacob Markstrom getting the start, the Swedes did a good job in front of him. Russia boasts a roster led by captain Alexander Ovechkin. The relentless Caps’ superstar tried everything to get through a stingy Sweden team defense. If there was an edge for the Swedes, it came on the back end with the quarter of Hedman, Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Anton Stralman making it very tough on the supremely skilled Russians. Toss in the overlooked Niklas Hjalmarsson and Mattias Ekholm and it’s no wonder many like the Swedes to challenge Canada.

Despite limiting Russia’s scoring chances by keeping them outside, they nearly squandered a two-goal lead in the last 33 seconds of regulation. With key stars Evgeni Malkin and Nikita Kucherov reluctant to shoot, it looked like Russia would get shutout. But in desperation mode, Ovechkin was able to sneak a tricky wrist shot through traffic past Markstrom at 19:27 to end his shutout bid. He finished with 27 saves to get the job done in place of Lundqvist, who went back to the hotel two hours before game time.

Remarkably, Ovechkin nearly pulled off a great comeback. With starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky pulled for an extra attacker following a icing, Russia had 10 seconds left to make something happen. On a face off win, the puck somehow wound up rebounding out to Ovechkin. He wisely went to glove the puck down and thought he tied it with seven seconds left. The refs immediately waved it off while Ovechkin raised his arms and celebrated at the Russia bench. As it turned out, they got it right with Ovechkin unable to get the shaft of his stick on the puck before it went in. It did look to also go off Stralman’s stick. But the rule is he gloved it in. So, unless he got a stick on it, it’s no goal.

Due to the ruling, the face off came outside, dashing Russia’s comeback hopes. While Sweden is 1-0-0, Russia is basically in the same unenviable position as USA. They need to win the next two to have a realistic chance of advancing to the semifinals. They’ll have to come back tomorrow night and beat a very young and talented North America, who currently lead Finland 1-0 on a Jack Eichel tally from 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews. With Finland their third opponent in the round robin, it’s no easy task.

Even for a team that boasts some of the world’s best players. Russia isn’t just Ovechkin. There’s Malkin, Kucherov, former Red Wing turned KHL star Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vladimir Tarasenko, ’15-16 Calder winner Artemi Panarin¬†and Artem Anisimov. They don’t boast the best D with vets Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin and newest Sabre Dmitry Kulikov leading the charge. However, there’s enough world class skill up front to compete. They’ll have to be in full attack mode against high flying North America and will need Bobrovsky to be at his best. He finished with 27 saves in defeat and wasn’t to blame on either.

As for Sweden, what makes them tough is how diligent their checking is. They compete for every loose puck. Led by Daniel and Henrik Sedin, they also boast Nicklas Backstrom, Landeskog, Loui Eriksson, Filip Forsberg along with underrated players Carl Hagelin, Jakob Silfverberg and Carl Soderberg.

On their first goal of two in the second period, it was Backstrom combining with Karlsson who set up a wide open Landeskog at the point for a one-timer thru a screen. The second tally was similar with Henrik Sedin getting the puck to Hagelin, who sent it across for a wicked Hedman one-time blast also through traffic.

It’s that kind of teamwork that makes the Swedes a tough draw. It’s why they have had success before winning Olympic gold in Torino back in ’06. They should be even tougher once Lundqvist returns. Given how well they played in front of Markstrom, who was strong, you have to like their chances.

In the second game, North America continues to lead Finland 1-0 late in the first period on ESPN2. They could easily be up 3-0 if not for highway robbery by Pekka Rinne and a goal post. We’ll have more on that one later.

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WCH2016: Crosby puts on a show in Canada’s 6-0 rout of Czech Republic

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The Crosby Show: Sidney Crosby put on a show in Canada’s 6-0 win over the Czech Republic. Here, he banks in the first goal off Michal Neuvirth. Canada dominated led by the game’s best player. AP Photo via Getty Images/Canadian Press from Sean Leahy of Puck Daddy.

If ever a country was ready for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, it was Canada. It’s their sport. The game’s best player Sidney Crosby put everyone on notice with a dominant performance. The two-time Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe winner and prince of the golden goal was at his usual spectacular self scoring the game’s first goal and assisting on two others- highlighting Canada’s 6-0 rout of the Czech Republic.

How amazing is Crosby? In what was a fantastic start by the Czechs, who went right at Canada, he found himself on a clean breakaway with the game scoreless. Everyone knew he was gonna shoot and go high glove. Czech starter Michael Neuvirth was ready and took it away with a breathtaking glove save to rob Crosby. He certainly did everything possible to give his team a chance. But couldn’t deny the crafty Crosby from behind the net. Imitating Wayne Gretzky, Crosby intentionally banked the puck off Neuvirth, who had to deal with an initial stop on Steven Stamkos at the far post and Brad Marchand. The goal at 8:26 got the party started in Toronto.

The Czechs came out flying. They used their speed and created chances. Ales Hemsky hit the crossbar with Carey Price screened. Jakub Voracek also had a great end to end rush and challenged Price. Ondrej Palat was dangerous early.

Eventually, the superior team took over. It was a great offensive draw that led to their second goal of the first. A perfect win by Patrice Bergeron allowed Crosby to dish back for a Brent Burns slap shot which was later credited to Marchand. Somehow, the pesky Bruins’ forward parked himself in front and got a piece of Burns’ laser to steer it in upstairs for a 2-0 lead with 2:52 left.

If you thought they were done and the Czechs would survive only down a pair, you just haven’t seen Crosby or Canada play. They’re relentless. It was Crosby’s relentlessness in particular that resulted in Marchand feeding a wide open Bergeron to beat the buzzer. Hounding Michal Kempny, who signed with the Blackhawks and had some better moments earlier, Crosby forced him into a sloppy turnover. Before you knew it, Marchand coolly threaded the needle past Crosby to his Boston teammate for a sweet finish with 0.7 seconds left.

That was the end of the match. The Czechs never recovered. They didn’t give up. It’s just that Canada’s speed and consistent fore-check tilted the ice. On for another shift, Crosby took a Matt Duchene feed and made an unbelievable backhand saucer pass to the bearded Joe Thornton for a tap in backdoor. Even though he didn’t get credit for an assist on Bergeron’s tally, Crosby basically deserved a fourth point for his great effort. He was plus-four with three points and dominated on face offs winning 86 percent.

During the telecast on ESPNews, John Buccigross and Kevin Weekes were entertained by the Crosby show. The same can be echoed for studio analysts Chris Chelios and Brett Hull who remarked, “It’s so hard to play with him.” Leah Hextall interviewed players between periods. Clearly, Buccigross and Weekes have great chemistry. They are a fun listen.

In between getting peppered for 50 shots and finishing with 44 saves, Neuvirth made some other spectacular stops including one where he somehow got his blocker up after being down for one of the best saves. Unfortunately, his best wasn’t enough for the Czechs, who next face Team Europe. Considering that Europe upset Team USA 3-0, it’s a must win for the Czechs. That could be more manageable than USA needing to beat Canada on Tuesday.

Canada would add two more goals. Jonathan Toews finished off down low for a power play goal from Ryan Getzlaf and John Tavares. In the third, Alex Pietrangelo made it a touchdown for another PPG from Drew Doughty and Tavares.

The Canadians have it all. It’s not just world class skill and star talent. But the will to compete every shift. That’s what makes them the best. Until proven otherwise, they remain the clear favorites.

Tomorrow is Group B play with Russia and Sweden in what should be a barn burner Sunday afternoon. Then we get to see how the young and talented North America fare against battle tested Finland. They’re in a very tough group. So, we’ll see if they’re up to the challenge.

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WCH2016: Europe humiliates USA 3-0

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All Europe: Marian Gaborik celebrates his first period goal with Christian Ehrhoff as Team Europe surprised Team USA 3-0 in the first game of the World Cup in Toronto. AP Photo via Canadian by Press Getty Images credit TSN.

There was so much build up for the first game of the World Cup of Hockey. A tournament born in ’96 which proved to be a memorable moment for American hockey with Team USA backstopped by tournament MVP Mike Richter stunning Canada in a compelling three game series, it’s back 20 years later in Toronto.

Unlike ’04 when it wasn’t as big a deal, this one feels like it. The anticipation. Clearly, fans are as is ESPN, which last had real hockey 12 years ago. For whatever reason, the 2016 version of Team USA wasn’t. After looking sharp in tune ups, they mailed it in- losing in dismal fashion to Team Europe 3-0 at Air Canada Centre.

Was it the early start time? Hardly. All we know is one team was ready to play while the other forgot to set the alarm clock. The aggressive and physical nature of coach John Tortorella’s Americans was seriously lacking. It led to a very disappointing uneven performance that can’t be explained. Defensemen pinched as did forwards at inopportune times, resulting in costly turnovers. Europe’s first two goals were a direct result of such chaos.

The first goal came off the stick of Slovakian sniper Marian Gaborik. He was the recipient of a great Frans Nielsen feed off a two-on-one. It happened in an instant with Ryan McDonagh caught up ice and Derek Stepan going to sleep defensively. Lazy back checking allowed the crafty Nielsen to create the odd-man rush and make a sweet dish in front for Gaborik, who beat American starter Jonathan Quick. Mats Zuccarello started the play in his own end by catching his Ranger teammate McDonagh with a quick outlet for Nielsen which led directly to the tournament’s first goal.

It was a tough first two periods for Quick. The 2012 Conn Smythe winner gave up three goals on nine shots. Sadly, none were his fault. The second European goal was another dreadful USA mistake. That it came from rating Hart winner Patrick Kane epitomized the emptiness in their game. He made a foolish pinch and got trapped along the boards by Tobias Rieder causing a ridiculous two-on-none break. Oilers’ youngster Leon Draisaitl was only too happy to work a perfect give-and-go with Nino Niederreiter allowing Draisaitl to get the return feed for an easy tap in past Quick.

Even when they did appear to score on a power play, it didn’t go their way. After firing some blanks, James van Riemsdyk had a puck go off his chest past Europe starter Jaroslav Halak. To the naked eye, it looked like he deliberately did it. So, Europe challenged. Interestingly, one angle appeared to show the puck bounce off Stepan’s helmet in front which looked like a good goal. But they had no luck. The goal was waved off keeping the game 2-0. After a couple of other good looks on the man-advantage with in particular T.J. Oshie missing on great set ups along with captain Joe Pavelski, they fell asleep late in the second on Europe’s third goal.

On an excuse me wrist shot from Jannik Hansen, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was able to get inside position on a napping Ryan Suter to deflect the puck past Quick at 18:32. Veteran German defenseman Christian Ehrhoff drew the secondary helper on a good keep.

The third period was defensive minded by Team Europe. They made sure to keep a third man high and only sent one forechecker in. A more aggressive USA was able to get more chances and drew penalties. But they never could get to Halak, who finished with a game high 35 saves- including 11 for 11 facing the USA power play. On one, they fired from everywhere getting six through but Halak wasn’t having any of it. The Islanders starter was sharp and earned the game’s first star.

So, what happened? For starters, there was no Dustin Byfuglien with Tortorella opting to go with three left and three right defensemen. A big miscalculation on his part. Even if he loves Jack Johnson, who plays for him in Columbus, it’s inexcusable to not start the big, physical and imposing Byfuglien.

Kyle Palmieri was also a scratch in favor of Justin Abdelkader. Nothing against Abdelkader who brings net presence and works diligently. But Palmieri can do that and has higher skill. He’s coming off a career season in which he scored 30 goals. In a must win scenario against beast Canada, who’s currently ahead 5-0 on the poor Czech Republic, Palmieri has to be in as does Big Buff.

As far as the goalie, you can’t pin it on Quick. If not for at least three quality stops including one highway robbery on Tomas Tatar, it’s a blowout despite the 35-17 edge in shots. There just wasn’t as much compete from USA. Something that drove former ’96 members Brett Hull and Chris Chelios nuts between intermission with host Linda Cohn. Hull didn’t mince words. He practically has written them off with Canada next. Chelios was just as harsh. If anything, they were entertaining.

Gotta love Hull saying, “If they can’t beat Europe, how are they gonna beat Canada?”

You would expect a team of their character to get up for a top heavy Canadian roster being led by Sidney Crosby (goal, 2 assists), Patrice Bergeron (goal, assist) and Brad Marchand (2 assists) on a do everything top line.

One takeaway on Europe. They might be the oldest team in the eight team tournament. But they also feature two of the game’s best players in all world center Anze Kopitar, who was masterful. Plus Roman Josi, who is a top six defenseman. Plus Zuccarello, who reminded you again why he’s so crafty and so competitive. How about that block on McDonagh and the hit against his New York buddy. You gotta love it. Halak’s a bit streaky. He wasn’t challenged enough until the third.

Bottom line. The Americans didn’t play with enough purpose. Not enough edge or poise. They made selfish mistakes. The kind I got used to seeing from the Rangers. Yeah. I went there. Both McDonagh and Stepan had awful games. But it was a total team effort. A bad double minor for high sticking from Brandon Dubinsky on Zdeno Chara. A penalty you can’t take when you’re trailing by three early in the third.

Ryan Kesler took two penalties too. He was one of the few skaters who at least tried. Same for Blake Wheeler and Zach Parise. Pavelski did too but it wasn’t enough. The whole D was porous. I would say Matt Niskanen was their best and he was also a minus. John Carlson wasn’t active enough either. The Johnson boys didn’t. McDonagh and Suter get F’s.

They have the next two days off to correct the mistakes. They’ll have to be flawless against Canada. Especially at the ACC in Canadian crazy Toronto. They did split two games with them in the tune up. We’ll see if they can turn it on. If not, it’s a epic fail.

Watching the Czechs against Canada, at least they’re competing. They started well but couldn’t beat Carey Price. They’re over matched.

Tomorrow’s games feature Group B. First up, it’s Russia against Sweden Sunday at 3:30 PM. The night cap promises to be fun with the 23-and-under North America battling pesky Finland at 8. That is a must watch for any hockey fan.

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Byfuglien a scratch for USA vs Europe

The World Cup gets going at the top of the hour. At 3 PM in Toronto, USA takes on Team Europe in round robin play. The game can be seen on ESPN2.

Surprisingly, USA coach John Tortorella has decided to scratch Dustin Byfuglien. He will sit while American mainstay Jack Johnson will play on the blue line. That seems kind of funny. Tortorella coaches the Blue Jackets and is showing loyalty to his guy. Johnson has always represented USA and done well. Maybe he prefers his skating.

Tortorella tried Byfuglien at forward looking to use his size and strength to wreak havoc during tune ups. But Byfuglien is most effective as a defenseman. Right now, USA’s back end features Jack and Erik Johnson, John Carlson, Ryan McDonagh, Matt Niskanen and Ryan Suter. That set up gives three left and three right D. Something coaches prefer. Not sure if that’s the logic. But I don’t like it.

As for the forwards, Kyle Palmieri will sit. That means Justin Abelkader is in along with David Backes, Brandon Dubinsky, Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, T.J. Oshie, Max Pacioretty, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, Derek Stepan, James van Riemsdyk and Blake Wheeler.

As expected, Jonathan Quick gets the start with Cory Schneider backing up. Ben Bishop in reserve.

We’ll see how it goes today.

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World Cup Preview: USA-Europe and Czech Republic-Canada kick off Saturday

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Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are two prominent names featured on Team North America in what shapes up to be an exciting tournament in Toronto for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. thehockeynews.com Getty Images/AP

Lately, I’ve been fighting writer’s block. Hence the lack of posts. We’re already into mid-September. The rookie camps have started. Traverse City just began. The Rangers lost their first game. I heard good reports on Jimmy Vesey. I don’t put too much stock in the tournament. But at least it’s a chance for some of our prospects to show what they got.

Speaking of big tournaments, the World Cup of Hockey finally gets going this afternoon. After all the warm ups including a USA split with Canada that resulted in an injury KO-ing Tyler Seguin (replaced by Ryan O’Reilly), Team USA will take on Team Europe at 3:30 EST on ESPN2. It’s part of group play. They’ll also battle Canada and the Czech Republic in the round robin format. Canada hosts the Czech Republic at 8 PM. With ESPN having a full slate of college football, that game can be seen on ESPNews. A channel virtually everyone gets.

It looks like John Buccigross and Kevin Weekes are the number one broadcast tandem who’ll be calling USA games. That’s good. I heard them for a warm up and they had good chemistry. Buccigross is hockey at ESPN. He remains as passionate as ever about the sport despite Bristol, Connecticut being out of the loop since ’04. Weekes is just awesome in any role. He excels. His instant analysis and insight is second to none. Honestly, I would love to see him one day replace Ed Olczyk on NBC. Sorry Pierre haters. He’s the best at his gig. But I doubt it’ll happen with Weekes contractually obligated to NHL Network. He’s the man!

Team B features old hat Steve Levy with Barry Melrose. Levy remains a good call who makes games exciting. Melrose is better suited for the studio where he excelled on NHL2Nite on the Deuce. He’s too chatty and isn’t a natural in the booth. I’ve seen plenty of complaints already about him and Levy. Here’s my take. It’s a cool hockey tournament that distracts us from the usual boring training camp crap and preseason yawn fest. If you really dislike what you hear that much, there’s a mute button. Or you can stream the games and maybe catch the Canadian Sports Net feed.

Honestly, I want to enjoy these two weeks for what they are. It’s not quite the Olympics. However, with the creativity of having fresh talent with North America featuring prominent emerging stars Jack Eichel, Aaron Ekblad,¬†Johnny Gaudreau, John Gibson,¬†Shayne Gostisbehere,¬†Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews,¬†Connor McDavid, Matt Murray and many others including Jonathan Drouin and Brandon Saad, it definitely gives the 2016 World Cup a unique appeal. Having a bunch of kids 23 or younger team up on what should be a really entertaining team bodes well. I can’t wait to see what they add. So much young talent and skill on one roster. That’s who I’m pulling for.

I also love the idea of Team Europe. A concept that needed to happen with Euro-stars from other countries such as Anze Kopitar (Slovenia), Thomas Vanek (Austria) and Mats Zuccarello (Norway). A better idea that watching Slovakia which still features Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa get eaten up. Unfortunately, Frederik Andersen¬†(Denmark) is out leaving goalie duties to Islander tandem Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. Caps’ backup Phillipp Grubaeur¬†(Germany) is the emergency backup.

In assessing the Czechs, gone are the classic days of hockey legends Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek. Astonishingly, Jagr still plays at a high level for the Panthers. If only he could score a goal in the postseason again. If Florida gets there for a second straight year, he’ll be 45. It’s also sad that Patrik Elias is no longer part of Team Czech Republic. His status remains uncertain on returning to the Devils. But I believe something will be worked out so the all-time franchise scoring leader can go out on his own terms.

The Czechs features vet Tomas Plekanec along with Eurostar Roman Cervenka. They don’t quite have as much high end skill. They’ll get by on more grit featuring Michael Frolik and Martin Hanzal. Hopefully, Ales Hemsky and Jakub Voracek will finish. Who knows about Milan Michalek and older sibling Zbynek Michalek. Ondrej Palat brings plenty of speed and penalty killing. They’ll rely heavily on starter Petr Mrazek. with Ondrej Palec and Michal Neuvirth other options.

When you compare that to a loaded Canadian roster featuring Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Logan Couture, Drew Doughty, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux,¬†Corey Perry, Alex Pietrangelo,¬†Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews and Shea Weber, it’s clear who the favorite is. The goalies are Carey Price, Braden Holtby¬†and Corey Crawford. It doesn’t matter who isn’t participating. No Jamie Benn, Seguin or Duncan Keith. No problem. Canada is so rich in talent all over both Northern, Central and Northwestern parts that everyone else including America pales in comparison. That’s why they’ve won golds in the last two Olympics and three of four. Only Sweden has gotten one doing so in ’06 on the back of Henrik Lundqvist by edging classic rival Finland.

USA has a very good roster. Even with Kevin Shattenkirk being passed over and Phil Kessel unable to participate due to off-season surgery, any team featuring rating NHL MVP Patrick Kane and ever clutch captain Joe Pavelski has a shot. Under demanding coach John Tortorella, they do play an in your face physical style at both ends. You know what. It works because the pieces fit. When you boast behemoth Dustin Byfuglien and most hated American Ryan Kesler, you can play a grinding style. The key will be to finish their checks and remain disciplined. Judging from the lines they used in exhibition, there’s chemistry. James van Riemsdyk and David Backes looked good. So did T.J. Oshie, who has a knack for big goals. Zach Parise is back too along with Blake Wheeler. He’ll do whatever it takes to score. If Max Pacioretty fits in, then they should have enough firepower. Derek Stepan adds creativity while former teammate Brandon Dubinsky should wreak havoc. Kyle Palmieri can do a bit of everything and Justin Abdelkader is a nuisance.

If there are two areas that are overlooked, it’s on the back end and in net. A blue line that includes John Carlson, Byfuglien, Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Suter should fare well. Matt Niskanen is overlooked. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick gets the nod to start with the capable Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider proven.

It shapes up to be an exciting tournament. I’ll have recaps of the games I catch. Plus more on what to expect from proven rivals Finland and Sweden. Plus a very talented Russia, who’s always interesting to follow in such tournaments.

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