Wednesday December 31st, 2014

With the top two spots in Group A of the World Junior Championship tournament already decided, the only thing that's really on the line when Canada takes on the United States this afternoon (4 p.m. EST; NHLN-US, NHL.com) in the finale of round-robin play is an easier opponent in the quarterfinal.

But it's never quite that simple when these two teams face off.

What's really on the line, what's always on the line, when these arch-rivals meet is bragging rights. And this time around the mix is spiced by a head-to-head battle between two generational talents for the top spot in next summer's NHL draft.

Not that Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid necessarily see it that way.

“Yeah, it’s there a little bit,” McDavid, the star center from the OHL's Erie Otters, said of the Connor vs. Jack angle on Tuesday. “It’s been something that’s been there for a long time now, but at the end of the day, it’s the U.S. against Canada. It’s not me against anybody else.”

“It’s not at all about me vs. Connor,” echoed Eichel, the 18-year-old pivot from Boston University. “It’s a huge matchup for the top seed in our bracket. It’s Canada and the U.S.”

No surprise that the two are downplaying it. There's nothing to be gained by pointing at an off-ice event six months down the road instead of the game that lies just ahead. But despite their words both understand that their performances will be parsed and debated long after the final score in this one is forgotten.

And while it's only one game, that might be all it takes to sway the team that ends up with the top spot in the draft to call one name over the other. Go back 18 months to the 2013 Memorial Cup Final between Nathan MacKinnon's Halifax Mooseheads and Seth Jones' Portland Winterhawks. MacKinnon rose magnificently to the challenge, scoring a hat trick including the title-clinching goal into an empty net, to lead Halifax to a 6-4 win. Defenseman Jones, who came into the game as the top-rated skater by NHL Central Scouting, scored a goal too but couldn't match the intensity of MacKinnon's electrifying performance.

A month later it was MacKinnon who went first overall to Colorado while Jones slipped to Nashville at number four. Would the Avs—a team that many thought needed defense—have taken the forward there anyway? Maybe, but that game sealed MacKinnon's reputation as a player who is capable of leading his team to greatness. That's the exact quality that every team wants in a top pick.

Will either McDavid or Eichel deliver a similar performance today? Both players have been solid, if something short of exceptional, to this point of the tournament. McDavid, who only recently recovered from a broken hand that sidelined him for six weeks leading up to the event, has three points in three games. Asked to assess his performance, the 17-year-old shrugged and said, “It’s been all right.”

One scout agreed. "Probably playing as well as can be expected working his wake back from that injury," he said. "You'd like to see more of his usual flash, but he's been good."

Eichel has a goal and an assist to show for Team USA's first three games, but has dominated to a greater degree, taking over shifts with his anticipation and puck skills.

"I'd give him the slight edge so far," the scout said of Eichel. "A little more wattage in his game right now."

It's worth pointing out that neither player is being asked to shoulder the load for his team. This is a tournament that relies on 19-year-olds to carry the day. Canada has gotten terrific play from first liners Max Domi (Coyotes, 2013) and Sam Reinhart (Sabres, 2014). Team USA is being led by center Dylan Larkin, a Red Wings prospect (2014). Chances are these vets will be the scoring stars again today. But the kids recognize the opportunity that lies ahead of them.

“You always want to be a difference maker, no matter what kind of game it is,” McDavid said. “It’s a bigger stage, but hopefully I can make a difference. It’s exciting obviously. World Juniors. Canada-USA. It’s hard not to be.”

What to watch tonight

Maple Leafs at Bruins, 7:00 EST (TVA, SN, NESN)

Play our new daily fantasy hockey game!

Nothing like piling a little soul-searching desperation on top of layers of historical animosity to spice up a New Year's Eve match, eh?

Both the Leafs and Bruins have resolved to make some changes to their frustratingly passive approaches, but both continue to fall into old, bad habits. Fleeting glimpses of structure and effort are keeping them in the playoff mix, but consistency has eluded them. Now's as good a time as any to change that.

It will help Toronto's efforts if Leo Komarov can step back into the lineup. The gritty forward has been sorely missed since suffering a concussion late in November. One of the few players on this team whose motor reliably runs high, he might be the spark the Leafs have been missing while dropping five of their past six games. No confirmation yet that goalie Jonathan Bernier will be back after missing the past two games with an illness, but his steady presence (2.65 GAA, .921 save percentage) could be a difference maker if he is ready to go.

The Bruins are coming off one of their best efforts of the season, a 5-2 thumping of the Red Wings on Monday that displayed the 60-minute intensity coach Claude Julien has been seeking. Can they build on it or was it just another frustrating tease of what these B's can be? Boston could have top-six forwards Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic back in the lineup after both missed the Detroit game.

Rest of the schedule: Islanders at Jets (5 p.m. EST; MSG+, TSN3); Lightning at Sabres (6 p.m. EST; SUN, MSG-B, BELL TV); Rangers at Panthers (6 p.m. EST; MSG2, FS-F); Hurricanes at Penguins (7 p.m. EST; FS-CR, ROOT); Wild at Blue Jackets (7 p.m. EST; FS-N, FS-O); Devils at Red Wings (7:30 p.m. EST; MSG+, MSG+ 2, FS-D); Sharks at Ducks (8 p.m. EST; CSN-CA, FS-W); Coyotes at Stars (8 p.m. EST; FS-A Plus, FS-SW); Flyers at Avalanche (9 p.m. EST; CSN-PH, ALT); Oilers at Flames (9:30 p.m. EST; SN, SN1)

 

What you missed last night

• P.A. Parenteau rescued the Canadiens in their shootout with the Panthers (highlights).

• Shea Weber's two goals powered the Predators past the Blues in a key Central Division game (highlights).

• Man bites dog: The woeful Oilers upended the Kings in a shootout (highlights).

• The Canucks dealt the Sharks a rare home loss (highlights).

• Predators employees likely qualify for hazardous duty pay.

The numbers game

• The NHL's top performers for the calendar year include Rick Nash, Joe Pavelski and Tyler Seguin with 42 goals apiece; Claude Giroux with 62 assists and 91 points; Alex Ovechkin and Pavelski with 19 power play tallies; Nash and Tyler Johnson with five shorthanded goals; Nash and Ovechkin with 10 game-winners; Henrik Lundqvist with 37 wins; and Marc-André Fleury with eight shutouts.

NHL
Power Rankings: Predators challenge Blackhawks again for No. 1

• Predators defenseman Shea Weber's 13 career multi-goal games rank third among active blueliners, behind Sergei Gonchar of the Canadiens (22) and Mike Green of the Capitals (16).

• More than 31 million votes have been cast for the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, to be played on Jan. 25 in Columbus, and the world's favorite player is still Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons, who has attracted 1,466,077 nods from around the globe. The rest of top six includes five Blackhawks: Patrick Kane (1,075,304), Jonathan Toews 91,061,691), Duncan Keith (1,044,124), Corey Crawford (955,385) and Brent Seabrook (875,686). Voting ends at midnight on January 1. 

Hot links

NHL
SI's zaniest hockey moments of 2014

• William Douglas takes a look at the surprising success stories to emerge from the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone program.

• With Michael Hutchinson asserting himself as an NHL-caliber starter, time is running out for veteran Ondrej Pavelec to prove that he's the best man for the job in Winnipeg.

• Elliotte Friedman reveals the most wanted man ahead of the NHL's trade deadline in this week's 30 Thoughts column.

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