Off The Draw
Quick thoughts ahead of today's quarterfinal game between Team USA and Russia at the World Junior Championship (1 p.m. EST, NHL Network):
• If the Russians have proven anything in this tournament, it’s that they have a tendency to unravel at the slightest provocation. They barely held it together against a lightly talented Danish team, lost their composure after having a goal disallowed against Sweden and were sabotaged by a slow start—just three first-period shots!—in a must-win New Year’s Eve game against the Czechs. Much has been made of the job done by coach Valeri Bragin, but this feels more like a personnel issue. The Russians are good, but they lack the swagger that’s defined their recent teams. They don’t have a game breaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov or Mikhail Grigorenko—somebody, in other words, capable of exploiting an opponents’ slightest breakdowns, or of taking control of a contest. Consequently, Russia has almost no margin for error. If the U.S. gets a goal on them early, this game could become a blowout.
• Jack Eichel may be the poster boy for Team USA, but I can’t take my eyes off of Auston Matthews, a player who seems to get better with each game. The early favorite to go first in the 2016 NHL Draft has made a strong impression at the tournament, playing a solid 200-foot game and showing tremendous poise despite just having turned 17. Matthews doesn’t have the elite upside of Eichel or Connor McDavid, but he plays a heavy game that will translate well to the pros. On Friday, expect to see him assert himself physically early on. He’ll be a handful even for Russia’s big-bodied defense.
• The U.S. looks to have a huge edge between the pipes. Thatcher Demko, who saved his team from getting blown out by Canada on New Year’s Eve, ranks among the tournament leaders with a .955 save percentage and a 1.31 goals-against average. The Canucks’ 2014 second rounder has terrific size (6' 4", 195 pounds), but it’s the quickness of his feet and his ability to go post-to-post that make him elite.
There’s no word yet on who’ll get the call for Russia. Both Ilya Sorokin, the team’s pre-tournament No. 1, and Igor Shestyorkin have earned two starts so far. Neither has been the brick wall that Andrei Vasilevskiy was in 2014 for the Russians, but Shestyorkin might be the best bet after his shutout of Switzerland—Russia’s only regulation win of the tournament.
• If Russia is going to advance, it will take a statement game from forwards Sergei Tolchinski (Hurricanes) or Pavel Buchnevich (Rangers). Tolchinski is a water bug, all speed and explosiveness. He has the ability to exploit the slightest hole and get behind the defense, and he also has some of the best—and most creative—hands in the tournament. Buchnevich, tied for the team lead with four points, is quick and fearless, especially when driving to the net. Both will challenge an American blue line that spent too much time on its heels against the Canadians.
• For Team USA, the game could turn on the success, or failure, of its power play. Although the Americans managed to strike once against Canada, they have scored just two goals in 16 chances in the tournament. Russia’s penalty kill hasn’t been stellar, allowing four goals in 14 chances, but it has done a great job clogging the neutral zone and controlling the blue line. The U.S. wants to control possession, but it may have get pucks deep and win battles down low to generate chances with the extra man.
What to watch this weekend
It’s a little early for teams at the top to start watching the standings, but Pittsburgh, which host Tampa Bay on Friday and the Canadiens on Saturday, understand the significance of this weekend. The Lightning are one point ahead of the Penguins in the battle for top spot in the Eastern Conference, and Montreal is one point behind Pittsburgh. Both Tampa Bay and the Canadiens have taken advantage of a slump that’s seen the Pens lose four of their last five games thanks in large part to their formerly top-ranked power play, which has connected on just three of its past 51 opportunities. To have any chance against the high-scoring Lightning, Pittsbrugh will need to figure out how to ignite its offense. The Bolts won’t make it easy. They’ve allowed just four goals in their last three games, all wins.
Rest of the schedule: Panthers at Sabres (7 p.m. EST; FS-F, MSG-B, BELL TV); Canadiens at Devils (7 p.m. EST; RDS, SNE, MSG+); Flyers at Hurricanes (7 p.m. EST; CSN-PH, FS-CR); Maple Leafs at Wild (8 p.m. EST; SNO, FS-N); Oilers at Avalanche (9 p.m. EST; SNW, ALT); Islanders at Flames (9 p.m. EST; SN1, MSG+ 2); Blues at Ducks (10 p.m. EST; FS-MW, PRIME)
Buoyed by three days rest and an impressive 3–2 win over St. Louis on Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena, Nashville heads west for a tough road date against the defending Stanley Cup champs. In the win over the Blues, the Predators got a pair of goals from captain Shea Weber. It was just the sort of strong bounce-back effort the team needed after having blown a 3–0 lead in a loss to the Blackhawks the previous night. The win padded Nashville’s lead to four points over third-place St. Louis in the hard-fought Central Division, and also kept the Predators from losing back-to-back games for the first time this season.
Los Angeles, which lost 4–3 in a shootout in Nashville back in November, can’t wait to get home. The Kings ended a three-game road swing on Thursday night by scoring a pair of goals in the final seconds to pull out a miraculous win in Vancouver, they had already lost the first two games of the trip, to Calgary and Edmonton, respectively. L.A. is a much tougher out at Staples Center, where it is 14-4-2.
Rest of the schedule: Senators at Bruins (1 p.m. EST; RDS, TSN5, NESN); Flyers at Devils (7 p.m. EST; CSN-PH, MSG+); Sabres at Rangers (7 p.m. EST; MSG-B, MSG); Canadiens at Penguins (7 p.m. EST; TVA, CITY, ROOT); Maple Leafs at Jets (7 p.m. EST; CBC, NHLN-US); Wild at Stars (8 p.m. EST;FS-N, FS-WI, FS-SW); Blue Jackets at Coyotes (8 p.m. EST; FS-O, FS-A); Red Wings at Canucks (10 p.m. EST; CBC, FS-D); Blues at Sharks (10:30 p.m. EST; SN, FS-MW, CSN-CA)
Stars at Blackhawks (8 p.m. EST; NBCSN, WGN)
You probably heard that Chicago lost a tough one on Thursday, but you may have overlooked Dallas’s 6–0 win over Arizona the night before. That victory—every bit as decisive as it sounds—was the Stars’ sixth in their last seven games. Quietly, they have crept back into the playoff mix in the West. Impressively, four of the six wins have come on the road, including a solid win in St. Louis last Saturday. But the Blackhawks thumped Dallas 6–2 on Nov. 16, the last time the Stars ventured into the United Center. While Chicago will be looking to rebound from its last-second loss to the Capitals, this will be a gut-check game for Dallas.
Rest of the schedule: Bruins at Hurricanes (1 p.m. EST; SN, ESN, SPSO); Panthers at Capitals (3 p.m. EST; FS-F, CSN-DC); Lightning at Senators (7 p.m. EST; TVA, CITY, SUN); Blue Jackets at Avalanche (8 p.m. EST; FS-O, ALT); Predators at Ducks (8 p.m. EST; FS-TN; PRIME); Islanders at Oilers (9:30 p.m EST; MSG+; SNW)
What you missed
• A video camera worn by a referee during the big outdoor game offered an interesting view of the action.
• The Kings scored twice late to steal a win against the Canucks (highlights).
The numbers game
• Troy Brouwer, the hero of the Winter Classic, is the only player in NHL history to play in 200 games for both the Blackhawks (238) and the Capitals (248). His goal at 19:47 of the third period was the latest regulation time game-winner in the history of the league’s annual outdoor game.
• Washington is now the fourth home team to win an NHL outdoor game, joining the Bruins (2010), the Flames (’11) and the Blackhawks (’14).
• The Capitals’ Brooks Orpik, and Chicago’s Brad Richards and Dan Carcillo, all skated in an outdoor game for an NHL-record fourth time. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville also became the first man to coach in three.
• Promising center Nick Bjugstad talks about his future in Florida after signing a six-year, $24.6 million extension with the Panthers.
• Eric Duhatschek says that the greatest challenge for new Oilers coach Todd Nelson is teaching the team to play fearlessly again. Some great insight here into turning around the mindset of a losing team.
• Don Cherry with a reminder for all the kids out there: Take care of your stick and it'll take care of you.