December 26, 2015
The USA earned its first WJC preliminary-round victory vs Canada in 17 years with a 4-2 win Saturday at Helsinki Ice Hall in Finland, Saturday. It was Canada’s first first-game loss in the tourney since 1998.
Finland and Sweden also had regulation wins against Belarus and Switzerland, respectively, and Russia survived a scare from the Czech Republic in a shootout on the first day of tournament competition.
The USA received goals from d-man Louis Belpedio, (Miami University – Ohio) a 2014 third-round Minnesota Wild pick, and Auston Matthews, projected #1 pick in 2016 draft playing pro in Europe, late in the third period to snap a 2-2 tie.
“Beating Canada meant a lot to me,” said US head coach Ron Wilson, the ex-Maple Leafs bench boss who last coached March 2, 2012. “It felt especially good because I haven’t won a game in four years. What better way than to get back on the horse? You fell off the horse a few years ago and I got right back on in the first game.”
Wilson was behind the bench when Canada beat the US at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver in OT.
Canada, 14-2-1 in the past 17 games against the United States at the World Junior Championship, received goals from Mathew Barzal (Seattle, New York Islanders) and Dylan Strome (Erie Otters, Arizona Coyotes), who was named Canada’s player of the game.
The victory by the United States was the first against Canada in the preliminary round since a 5-2 win Dec. 31, 1998. The U.S. last beat Canada 5-1 on Jan. 3, 2013 in the semifinals of the medal round.
The United States play Sweden, an 8-3 winner against Switzerland, and Canada plays Denmark on Monday in Group A action.
Russia, which received a shootout goal by Maxim Lazarev in the third round to beat Czech Republic 2-1, play Finland with first place in Group B at stake on Monday. Finland defeated Belarus 6-0.
US Top Gun Ejected
The United States got off to an inauspicious start when first-line right wing Alex DeBrincat, the leading scorer in the OHL (London Knights), was given a game misconduct for spearing Canada forward Travis Konecny (Ottawa 67s, Philadelphia Flyers) 17:20 into the first of a scoreless game. Canada were not able to score on the five minute man advantage.
“That was big for us,” said American forward Auston Matthews. “For us to kill off that five minutes, it really gave us momentum.”
After Canada tied the game 2-2 on Strome’s power-play goal 10:45 into the third, the U.S. went back on the attack and eventually was rewarded when Belpedio’s shot from the point deflected off the stick of Canada defenceman Joe Hicketts (Detroit Red Wings) at 16:42.
Hicketts thought he’d block the shot coming from the point before changing his mind and pulling his stick away. Belpedio’s otherwise harmless-looking wrist shot deflected off Hicketts’ stick and into the net.
“You say nothing to him (Hicketts),” said Canadian forward Mitch Marner. “You say it’s not your fault at all. Everyone tries to do that, it just didn’t go his way this time. He played a great game for us. Just one sad thing happened and it led to a goal.”
Matthews then cleaned up a shot from the point by Werenski that trickled through the pads of McDonald less than a minute later to finish off the scoring.
“Going into the third period the message was staying on your toes and keeping the puck in front of you,” Wilson said. “From wherever, we had to shoot the puck. We turned away a few shots early in the game but in the third, especially, got our point shots through and were rewarded for it.”
There were some questions surrounding who would win over the United States coaching staff as starting goalie entering the tournament. Nedeljkovic, who was a member of the 2015 U.S. national junior team but did not play a game, certainly made his team proud with a fine effort to begin the tournament.
Wilson said he will give Brandon Halverson (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, New York Rangers) an opportunity at some point, but Nedeljkovic earned high praise against Canada. His biggest save came less than a minute before Belpedio’s go-ahead goal when he denied Strome with his left glove off a quick release on a 2-on-1.
“It’s exciting and it’s hard to explain but it is just one game,” Nedeljkovic told NHL Network. “We still have three more to go in the preliminary round and hopefully a long playoff run.”
Canada’s head coach Dave Lowry says that at the off-day practice shooting drills will be a priority.
“We’d like more shots, period,” said Lowry. “Tonight we had the puck in good spots and we didn’t get it to the net. We were looking for perfect plays. We will continue to hammer home that to score you have to get pucks to the net.”
Even the largely Canadian crowd in attendance wanted to see their team shooting more. Moments before Strome scored his power-play goal, fans started to shout “SHOOT!,” with the crowd jumping to its feet when he snapped the puck past Nedeljkovic.
“I had a couple of good chances and I buried one of them,” said Strome. “I’ve got to put more pucks on the net and if I’m in front of the net on the power play, I’ve got to get there and do my best to tip them or put them in.”