The 2018 World Junior Championship is underway in host city Buffalo at KeyBank Center. As usual, it consists of two groups comprising of five countries totaling 10. In round robin play, the top four in each group advance to the elimination format. The group winners earn the top two seeds in opposite brackets with them drawing the fourth place team of the other group in the quarterfinals.
At the moment, Canada and Sweden are sitting pretty leading their respective groups. The Canadians are looking to go a step further than last year’s bitter disappointment to USA in a memorable shootout won by American hero Troy Terry. He also did it to Russia with some shootout mastery in the semifinals.
The real intriguing story so far has been Canada and USA taking part in the first ever outdoor game on Friday at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the snow before over 44,000 screaming fans representing both sides. The big North American rivalry lived up to its billing in the elements. In worse conditions than the inaugural Winter Classic also played at the home of the Buffalo Bills won by Sidney Crosby, Team USA showed tremendous heart in rallying from a two-goal deficit in the third period to come back and beat Canada 4-3 in another shootout.
It was a spectacle for hockey fans and viewers to behold. Even with some legitimate gripes from a Canadian contingent about playing such a game in tough wintry conditions, the game didn’t disappoint. Canada took advantage of some undisciplined play from the Americans. They capitalized on two power plays with Cale Makar and Dillon Dube scoring a pair of power play goals to give the Canadians the upper hand.
But a loss of discipline from Canada led to a full two-minute USA five-on-three. Though it took a while, Islanders prospect Kiefer Bellows beat Carter Hart top shelf for a big power play goal that cut the deficit to one. Casey Mittlestadt picked up the primary helper. The future Sabre has been brilliant so far in the tournament. His playmaking ability and sweet finish in a upset loss to Slovakia has been on display. He is tied for the lead in scoring with six points (3-3-6). In the comeback win yesterday, He recorded three assists with some superb passing to set up teammates.
Equally impressive was American starting goalie Jake Oettinger, who overcame a tough start making timely saves to help his team stay afloat. He made two crucial stops to deny Canadian breakaways that likely would’ve put it out of reach. Even though he finished with only 19 saves, Oettinger maintained his poise throughout. It was his quick outlet to Mittlestadt that caught Canada in a change for Bellows’ power play tally.
Following the Bellows goal, Oettinger denied one Canadian who was in. But with all five skaters scrambling around, a giveaway went right to Jake Bean whose quick turnaround shot was redirected in by Boris Katchouk for a 3-1 Canadian lead. At that point with the snow intensifying making life very difficult for the ice workers, it looked like it would be too much to ask the Americans with a period left.
With bigger snowflakes falling and bad patches in the ice that took extra time to fix during stoppages, it was hard for players to make plays with the puck. It was going to take something special. Even NHL Network analyst Ryan Whitney cast his doubts due to the special Bills themed USA jersey they wore.
USA got help thanks to a bad penalty on Maxime Comtois for foolishly boarding a prone American player from behind. It was flat out dangerous and stupid. Somehow, the IIHF officials only called it a minor. That was all Team USA needed to get back in the contest.
Mittlestadt made a nice pass for a open Scott Perunovich, who buried a one-timer into a open side that cut it to 3-2 with 13:51 left in regulation. That got the American side back in it. With the energy in the stadium shifting to familiar “USA! USA! USA!” chants, Team USA responded right away by tying the game just 34 seconds later.
On a strong cycle behind the net, out came Mittlestadt with the puck where the smart Buffalo 2017 first round pick passed in front for 2018 Draft Eligible Brady Tkachuk. He drove to the net and tapped the puck in past Hart to get it tied at three to loud cheers from the American contingent.
In a crazy game where you had delays due to the ice workers shoveling snow and doing a great job cleaning the surface, it was destined for overtime. In the three on three, Canada controlled most of the action. They even changed sides at the 2:30 mark to make it fair. But Canada blew a three on one which as it turned out, was their best opportunity to still get a win over their nemesis.
Following a scoreless five minutes, they prepared the ice the best they could for the shootout. I figured it would be advantage Canada with the more experienced Hart back from last year’s gold medal game. How wrong was I.
It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out the strategy. With the ice tough for each skater to make moves such as dekes, it was obvious that they would try to maintain control of the puck before taking a shot.
In Round 1, Bellows followed that strategy to a tee. He skated in on Hart and patiently waited before firing a low wrist shot thru the five-hole for a 1-0 USA lead after Sam Steel missed. Canada’s second shooter Robert Thomas moved in and tried to go glove but a calm Oettinger was ready for him to easily make the glove save.
Riding the momentum, out came Tkachuk. A legit American prospect who probably will go in the top 10 of the 2018 NHL Draft like his brother Matthew who stars for Calgary, he made Dad Keith proud. He skated in and looked like he was thinking similar to Bellows. But at the last moment, he got Hart to bite and picked high glove inside the bar for a 2-0 American lead.
Unlike the NHL, international shootouts are five rounds. So, Canada still had a chance to come back. However, a laser focused Oettinger wouldn’t allow it. Between a Mittlestadt deke try that missed, he stopped Canada’s third and fourth shooters by denying Taylor Raddysh and Drake Batherson. That touched off a celebration with a pumped up Tkachuk screaming to the crowd, “Two Bills Mafia!” while pumping his fists. When asked about the game, he said it was the most fun he ever had playing a game.
Leave it to a smart 18-year old freshman who plays for Boston University to perfectly explain what it meant to play in the first ever outdoor game in World Junior Championship history.
I think the thing that some critics are forgetting is this game didn’t have that much significance. Sure. The conditions were bad. But it’s round robin group format. It was game three of four for each side. I wonder had Canada prevailed if a few of the sourpusses would still be upset. All they had to do was protect a two-goal lead with one period left in unfavorable conditions for their opponent. They opened the door with the dumb penalty and USA obliged.
Would I do another outdoor game under such snowy and wild conditions? Probably not. I get the point. I doubt any of the participants were upset. It’s always the fans or expert bloggers who can’t enjoy such games. Where were they in 2008 when Crosby beat Ryan Miller in the Pens’ amazing win over the Sabres in a shootout? Probably ecstatic.
In regards to where the two rivals are in Group A, Canada finds itself needing just a win over Denmark to wrap up first place. They’re 2-0-1-0 with seven points. Finland is second with a 2-0-0-1 with six points. USA is 1-1-0-1 with five points sitting third. What they do tomorrow against Finland at 4 EST on New Year’s Eve will determine if they are gonna finish second or wind up on the opposite side of the bracket with either Sweden or Russia.
It should be noted that with a wild 6-5 win over Belarus in which Rangers prospect Filip Chytil had a goal and assist, the Czech Republic are tied with Russia for second in Group B. They’re actually in front due to beating them head to head on Tuesday 5-4.
The most exciting hockey tournament continues Sunday. Four more games and group play concludes. In another big match up, Russia takes on Sweden in the late game at 8 PM. I’ll probably be around. I should also mention that Rangers prospect Lias Andersson is having a good showing. He scored twice in Sweden’s 7-2 win over Switzerland. He’s up to four goals and a assist. The Devils have some prospects playing too with Joey Anderson captaining USA while Mike McLeod is playing on Canada.
There are plenty of good prospects to follow including projected 2018 first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin on Sweden. The defenseman doesn’t turn 18 until April 13. He has six assists in three games.
How unique is this tournament? It matters. Former American star Brian Gionta visited Team USA before practice today. Amazing stuff.