United States 4, Canada 2
New York (The Draft Analyst) — Louis Belpedio scored the go-ahead goal late in the third period and Auston Matthews added an insurance marker to lead the United States to a 4-2 victory over Canada on Saturday in its opening round-robin game of the 2016 World Junior Championship.
Belpedio, a Minnesota Wild draft pick who plays defense for Miami (Ohio), broke a tie when he fired a wrist shot with just 3:18 left in the third that deflected off the stick of Team Canada defenseman Joe Hicketts and past goalie Mason McDonald. Team USA increased its lead to 4-2 just 41 seconds later when McDonald allowed a shot from defenseman Zach Werenski to sneak through his pads, and Matthews went behind him to bury the loose puck into the back of the net.
The two nations traded power play goals earlier in the period, with Werenski firing a long wrist shot past McDonald at 7:22 to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead. Canada responded with a power play goal of its own at 9:15 when center Dylan Strome beat goalie Alex Nedeljkovic with a shot from the left circle with Werenski serving a minor a slashing.
Canada’s Matthew Barzal and Team USA’s Colin White scored in the second period after a scoreless opening frame. Nedeljkovic finished with 25 saves, while McDonald stopped 21 of 25 shots.
C AUSTON MATTHEWS (2016 Draft Eligible/1997): He was expected to be the best player on the ice of either team, and the consensus top pick for 2016 did not disappoint. Matthews quickly identified how little room was being presented to him, so he busily went about controlling the puck for long periods of time in Canada’s end, specifically the shift immediately following Matt Barzal’s opening score. He doesn’t need open ice to be dynamic, nor is he the kind of player to dictate the terms via flashy moves or trickery. Matthews simply holds onto the puck for eons and only he decides when to relinquish it. He finished with a goal and an assist and looked every bit as the dominant player we expected him to be.
G ALEX NEDELJKOVIC (Carolina 2nd/2014): It wasn’t as historic a performance as some are already making it out to be, but any time you beat Canada at the WJC’s, you expect fingers to point towards the young man in the crease. Nedeljkovic was next to perfect in net in terms of his positioning, tracking and movement, offering Canada nothing to shoot at. He couldn’t be faulted for either goal against, as defenseman Chad Krys took him out for Barzal to bury a feed from Julien Gauthier into a half-open cage. Strome’s snipe was more of a stoppable shot, but it was an absolute laser and through traffic in front of him.
LHD ZACH WERENSKI (Columbus 1st/2015): It was reassuring to see somebody take charge of Team USA’s defense corps, especially when that someone has a skill set unmatched by any defender on either side. Canada may not have been forechecking as heavy as we’ve seen them do in previous tournaments, but the pressure was significant nonetheless. Werenski handled it very well, ensuring all bases were covered as he collected the puck in his own end. The clogged neutral zone prevented the smooth skater to get his wheels in motion, so he made up for it by firing accurate breakout passes. Overall, it was a complete 180-degree turn from last year’s WJC performance, and we mean that in a positive way.
LHD BRANDON CARLO (Boston 2nd/2015): The stay-at-home defender had an excellent game positionally, and his wingspan played a huge role in thwarting Team Canada’s ability to set up plays and jump on loose pucks in the offensive zone. Carlo’s active stick was certainly something to marvel at, and coach Ron Wilson leaned on him heavily by matching him up against the Strome line as often as possible. His decision making was marginal, however, as he habitually backhanded his clearing attempts to open Canadian forwards; sometimes in the middle of the ice and in danger areas; with his most egregious error costing Werenski the minor penalty Strome eventually cashed in. We’d like to see a calmer version out there, much like the way he plays for the WHL’s Tri-City Americans.
C DYLAN STROME (Arizona 1st/2015): Strome was Canada’s best player against Team USA by a long shot, and we’re not trying to take the easy way out because he scored. It was his first big game since last season’s OHL playoffs, and we’re pretty sure the version Arizona’s brain trust saw in Helsinki is the Strome they want laced up and ready to go in Glendale. He was quick, decisive and confident as he tried his best to work around a stingy Team USA game plan.
RW MITCH MARNER (Toronto 1st/2015): Somewhat disappointing effort from one of Canada’s leaders, and he even admitted that it took him over 40 minutes to start contributing. The beauty of a player of Marner’s ilk is that they can pull a vanishing act for most of a contest, then quickly turn it around on one play. His zone entry and subsequent ankle breaking of penalty killer Scott Eansor caused the latter to wipe out, thus creating time and space for Strome to walk into the left circle and fire one past Nedeljkovic.
LW JAKE VIRTANEN (Vancouver 1st/2014): Unless you lived in a cave the last two weeks, you knew that Virtanen’s addition/release from the Vancouver Canucks was big news all over both Canada and his native Finland. Sadly, it took only one game for the rose to lose its proverbial bloom, as Virtanen put forth one heck of a stinker, and against the United States no less. We’re going to guess that head coach Dave Lowry (among others) wanted a lot more from him, so maybe a wake up call (and less media engagements) helps him for the next game.
C MATT BARZAL (New York Islanders 1st/2014): Word was that Barzal — Team Canada’s top player during last April’s Under-18 World Championship — was going to be used as a depth player at the WJC’s. However, Barzal was one of their better forwards in the second half of the game, and his goal showcased how accurate a shooter he really is. He missed badly on a one-timer from the right circle, but he was used on the second power play unit and was feathering passes over sticks like it was no big deal.
RW JULIEN GAUTHIER (2016 Draft Eligible/1997): We’re hoping his nifty pass to Barzal on the game’s opening score would stop the incessant “Cy Young” talk due to his low QMJHL assist totals. The kid can flat out play, and he’s been setting up quality chances for his Val-d’Or linemates all season. What they do after that isn’t on him. He’s the youngest player on the roster, but his assist and great scoring chance in the first period hopefully bumps him up to a top-six role.