Challenge for USA at World Juniors; more weekend notes
By Anna Gallegos
Off The Draw
With the NHL on its holiday break until Saturday night, you can get your hockey fix by tuning into the World Junior Championship tournament that opens on Friday night in Montreal and Toronto. The league’s best prospects under age 20 will be on display, but all eyes will be on Canada’s Connor McDavid and Team USA’s Jack Eichel, the most coveted prizes in next June’s NHL Draft. The heat will particularly be on McDavid, who will be counted on to lead Canada to gold on its home ice after five years of coming up short in a tournament that it used to dominate. No team has repeated as WJC champion since Canada won five titles in a row from 2005 to ’09.
Team USA made easy work of Sweden and Germany in the exhibition rounds, but steamrolling Finland in its first preliminary game (3 p.m. EST; NHL Network) will not be so simple. Finland is looking to repeat its gold-medal run of last year, and has the team to do it. While Sabres’ defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and Blackhawks forward Teuvo Teravainen, two key members of that championship team, are not on the roster, the Finns boast a stout defense led by Stars prospect Julius Honka and returning gold medalist Juuse Saros in net.
Captained by Eichel, the U.S. has a raft of scorers. In the American’s 5–2 win over Germany last Sunday, every goal came from a different player. Michigan forward Tyler Motte scored three goals in exhibition play—one against Germany and two in a 10–5 rout of Sweden on Tuesday. Other U.S. players to watch include defensemen Noah Hanifin of Boston College and Zach Werenski, Motte’s teammate on the Wolverines. Hanifin and Werenski are both 17-year-old freshmen, and they both also have size and a big international stage on which they can boost their stock for the upcoming draft.
A win over Finland for Team USA, which finished fifth at the 2014 WJC, could be a major confidence boost before it faces the other teams in Group A—especially Canada, which opens against Slovakia at 8 p.m. EST on Friday. The U.S. and Canada will meet on New Year's Eve (4 p.m. EST) in Montreal.
GROUP A: USA, Canada, Finland, Germany, Slovakia
GROUP B: Czech Republic, Denmark, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland
What to watch this weekend
The NHL gets back into action with a nearly full slate of games. This will be the first of the four meetings this season between these Metro Division rivals, and any showdown that features Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby has some real entertainment value. Washington, which had its three-game winning streak snapped by the Rangers on Tuesday, has lately seemed to find its game under new coach Barry Trotz. The Caps have won seven of their last 10 games and have clawed their way back into the playoff picture. Pittsburgh, which has been battling a wave of injuries (10 players on IR) and a breakout of the mumps, will be looking to snap a two-game skid that includes losses to the Panthers and the Lightning, the latter thanks to Tyler Johnson’s hat trick that helped deny the Pens’ furious late comeback.
Blackhawks vs. Avalanche (9 p.m. EST; ALT, CSN-CH)
High-flying Chicago at 14-2-1 in its previous 17 games was brought down a bit by an ugly 5–1 loss to the Jets on Tuesday. Having had some time to rest and regroup the Blackhawks are eager to get back on a roll, but will have to do it against Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov. After recovering from a groin injury, Varlamov returned on Tuesday at the top of his game with a 26-save shutout of the Blues, a victory that extended the Avs’ winning streak to a season-high three games and left coach Patrick Roy feeling pleased about his club's climb back to .500 after its sluggish start to the season. A key to their recent success has been the revival of their power play, which has tallied in each of Colorado's past three games.
Luckily for Los Angeles, San Jose’s John Scott won’t be there to sucker punch anyone. The Sharks’ enforcer earned a four-game suspension last Monday night for knocking the Ducks’ Tim Jackman unconscious.
This will be the first time the two teams have met since San Jose spoiled the Kings’ banner-raising ceremony on the opening night of the season with a 4–0 victory, a win that gave the Sharks a measure of revenge for their epic playoff collapse against L.A. last spring. The Sharks, after a slow start and much talk about coach Todd McLellan being on the hot seat, have been very good, winning nine of their last 11 games. One reason that San Jose has been so good: forwards Matt Nieto and Joe Thornton rank among the league’s leaders in Corsi percentage. The up-and-down Kings, on the other hand, are just trying to find some stability.
Rest of the schedule: Islanders at Sabres (7 p.m. EST; MSG+, MSG-B, BELL TV); Red Wings at Senators (7 p.m. EST; CBC, TVA, FS-D); Hurricanes at Lightning (7 p.m. EST; FS_CR, SUN); Devils at Rangers (7 p.m. EST; MSG+ 2, MSG); Bruins at Blue Jackets (7 p.m. EST; NESN. FS-O); Jets at Wild (7 p.m. EST; CITY, FS-N); Stars at Blues (8 p.m. EST; FS-SW, FS-MW); Flyers at Predators (8 p.m. EST; CSN-PH, FS-TN); Ducks at Coyotes (8 p.m. EST; PRIME, FS-A); Oilers at Flames (10 p.m. EST; CBC)
Canucks at Ducks (8 p.m. EST; TVA, CITY, PRIME)
Expect another battle between these two Pacific rivals. They split their first two meetings of the season, which both ended in shootouts. Surprising Vancover (22-11-2, seventh in the West) entered the break on a two-game winning streak after routing the Coyotes 7–1 last Monday. Daniel and Henrik Sedin continue to propel the offense, with help from linemate Radim Vrbata, but there is cause for concern about Nick Bonino, who has cooled considerably (one goal, one assist in his last 10 games). On the plus side, winger Jannik Hansen has been cleared to play after he collapsed on the bench during Saturday night's game against Calgary. Division-leading Anaheim was the first team to reach the 50-point mark, but after battling injuries and illness they needed some time off. Winger Corey Perry (knee) has been practicing with the team and is expected back soon, but may not make it for this game.
Rest of the schedule: Maple Leafs at Panthers (5 p.m. EST; TVA, SNO, FS-F)
The numbers game
• The NHL entered its holiday break with the top 14 teams in the league separated by only 10 points.
• Toronto won 20 games before Christmas for the first time since 2003–04.
• After five weeks and 25 million votes, Buffalo forward Zemgus Girgensons remains the man the world most wants to see in the NHL All-Star Game in Columbus on January 25. You can check out the real time voting leaderboard here.
• The NHL just killed the dry scrape and the shootout may be next, based on results from the AHL's 3-on-3 overtime experiment.
• If you haven’t purchased a ticket to the Winter Classic in Washington, D.C., yet you can expect to shell out over $500 on the secondary market.
• The outdoor game craze rolls on: The Toledo Walleye will host the ECHL's first al fresco contest on Saturday.