Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Canada's depth shuts down Eichel, U.S. at WJC

MONTREAL – A lot of the attention surrounding the preliminary-round game between Canada and the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championship on Wednesday was the matchup between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

But the top two prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft were barely ever on the ice together. Instead, it was an entirely different matchup that allowed Canada to come away with a 5-3 win to claim first place in Group A.

Canada coach Benoit Groulx used the advantage of having the last change to play defensemen Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers) and Shea Theodore (Anaheim Ducks) and the forward line of Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres), Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) and Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) against Eichel's line the entire game.

That group shut down Eichel, Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild) and Tyler Motte (Chicago Blackhawks) by doing what that line had done so successfully to that point in the tournament; controlling the puck and keeping it in the offensive zone, far away from the Canada net.

"He's a talented player and he's got two linemates helping him out as well," Reinhart said. "They're good, but we tried to focus on our game. I thought we played the same way as we have, and we were able to have the puck for the most part."

Eichel had a tremendous chance to score in the first minute of the game. After Motte drove hard to the net to create a rebound, Eichel got the puck in the slot and had most of the net to shoot at, but Nurse came sliding into the crease with Tuch and Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) got across, and that combination of bodies managed to keep Eichel's shot out.

But from that point, Eichel's line spent most of the game chasing the puck, and the few times they got it in the offensive zone they were quickly neutralized by Nurse and Theodore.

"They played physical," Eichel said. "That's the way they're going to play so you have to battle through it."

Though they were successful against Eichel, Canada still came away impressed with his game.

"He's just fast," Theodore said. "He's got great hockey sense and he really knows what areas of the ice to go to if he wants to get opportunities. I felt like we did a good job tonight."

Eichel's line bookended its game with quality chances, with Tuch getting off a shot from the slot while the U.S. trailed by a goal in the final minute of regulation.

But just as with Eichel's chance in the opening minute of the game, Nurse intervened by blocking Tuch's shot and sweeping the puck to the corner with his glove moments before Reinhart scored into an empty net to make it 4-2 Canada.

"First of all [Canada] played well against him, absolutely," U.S. coach Mark Osiecki said. "The thing I will say is I thought our guys didn't get rattled. Whether they had success or not, Jack and his linemates didn't get rattled, they kept on plugging away. But [Canada] did a nice job on them, no doubt about that. And that's to be expected.

"When you've got that elite profile on you, you're going to draw a lot of attention."

It was appropriate that Nurse make that play at such a pivotal moment of the game because of how well he and Theodore and Reinhart's line neutralized the biggest offensive threat for the U.S.

Winning the matchup that no one was talking about was a big reason Canada won the game.

Capitals view Blackhawks as model franchise

WASHINGTON -- When the Chicago Blackhawks were ascending to the top of the NHL, they had a franchise to measure themselves against, to model their progress after.

That franchise was the Detroit Red Wings, which was the elite organization in the League for a long time. Whether it was on-ice success or a wealth of intangible measures, the Blackhawks wanted what the Red Wings had.

It wasn't really until Chicago beat Detroit in the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs and won a second title that the little brother-big brother dynamic disappeared from that rivalry.

After two championships and four trips to the Western Conference Final in six seasons, the Blackhawks, along with the Los Angeles Kings, have become a franchise others measure themselves against. The Blackhawks will meet one of those teams Thursday in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park.

"I think the Blackhawks are probably the gold standard right now in the National Hockey League with success on the ice and success off the ice, having a strong following," Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "To me they do everything right. The details, game presentation, facilities -- they think about the whole hockey experience for their fans, for their players, for their employees. That to me is the gold standard."

The Capitals reached a similar valley as the Blackhawks did before Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane arrived in Chicago. Washington has experienced success with its core of world-class players in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but not at the same level as Chicago.

Washington won the Presidents' Trophy in 2009-10, but Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens knocked the Capitals out of the playoffs, and about six weeks later Toews received the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. The Capitals struggled to maintain their status as title contender in the following seasons, while the Blackhawks have flourished.

"Just based on our personnel, I don't think our team is going to look like theirs does, but the consistency and kind of their attitude and their culture, that is something that we can hopefully get to that level someday," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "They've got it established and they are proven winners. A lot of the same people are there, and they know what it takes.

"We're not there yet. We haven't accomplished anything. We want to have some of the attributes they have, like the culture, and I'm not in their room, but I'm sure they have a lot of accountability. Hopefully we can get there."

A number of factors have contributed to the Blackhawks' success. It starts with talent, and there are few teams in the NHL that can match the skill and talent and depth assembled in the Windy City.

Through a combination of a forward-thinking front office and a coaching staff open to new ideas and concepts, the Blackhawks have been lauded as one of the franchises most willing to use recent innovations in analytics to their advantage.

The Blackhawks are one of the best puck-possession teams, and coach Joel Quenneville helps maximize his players with how and when his deploys them. The success and the quality of the players have also helped foster that culture Niskanen was talking about.

"It is kind of passed down to you from the guys who have been here," Ben Smith, one of the younger Blackhawks, said. "You expect to win every night. You are expected to work hard and give your best. That is the challenge you're given. We're fortunate to have a lot of guys who have been around here for a while and maybe when that wasn't the case.

"We look at those guys and watch them to see what they bring to the table every day. They want to win and they're going to do whatever it takes. For a guy like me or [Andrew Shaw] or [Marcus Kruger], as guys coming in the last few years, it is a great atmosphere to learn in and continue to improve."

Words like "culture" and "accountability" and "leadership" are hard to define. Teams around the NHL are desperate to be strong in those areas. The Blackhawks and Kings are two of the teams that have "it," and the others want what they have.

"It speaks to the kind of people we have. We hold ourselves accountable more than anything else," Smith said. "We put the pressure to win ourselves individually more than leaning on the team in general. We're very fortunate to have good people here from the top down, and that feeds into what the team has accomplished and hopefully can in the future."

The Blackhawks have been among the best puck-possession and goal-prevention teams in the NHL all season. There was a point where they were not among the teams with the most wins or points in the standings.

This was a time when Chicago's culture was most evident. The Blackhawks did not panic and did not change their style of play or objectives. They knew they were playing well and the pucks would start going in the net.

That has happened, and now the Blackhawks are back near the top of the League standings. They are also a near-consensus favorite as the team to beat in the NHL as the calendar flips to 2015.

"[Quenneville] will give us the right recipe to be successful," Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell said. "At the beginning of the year, we were playing the way he wanted us to, but things weren't quite going our way. That 'Circus Trip' about a month ago, we finally started to figure out and we had some chemistry with four lines and we've been rolling with it.

"We've got a great core that has grown together. If you look at what we've done the past couple years, the past several years, it is special. We have a chance to do the same thing. We're looking forward to it."

The Capitals have a new coach in Trotz and a couple of new veteran defensemen in Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. They also played well at the beginning of the season but lacked the results to show for it.

"I haven't won anything either. I just played in a place that kind of had that established. Maybe I can bring a little bit of that, but Brooks can for sure," Niskanen said. "He saw the lean times in Pittsburgh and won a championship and been everywhere in between. He knows what a winning culture looks like and what a not-so-good culture looks like. That's a big thing for him. We want to help on the ice for sure, but hopefully we can help.

"I think we can keep going, but we're heading in the right direction. We didn't want to completely change everything because this team has done a lot of good things in the past. There's been a little change in attitude and how to look at parts of the game can help us. "It's a lot of stuff without the puck. I think the attitude without the puck has been a big push, and that's where we are seeing some improvement."

The process has started to produce more victories, and Washington hopes to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. More than that though, the Capitals want to be back in that small group of elite teams and have a chance to finally reach the peaks the Blackhawks have scaled.

"We've both come from the ashes to be pretty strong franchises this past decade, so there are some parallels, but the one thing we haven't done is we haven't won a banner," Trotz said. "We've won some of the smaller banners, but we haven't won the big one, and that's what I know this ownership and this organization wants to do. We're trying to build toward something like that if we can."


Hardworking Holtby impresses Capitals coach Trotz

WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz has tinkered with his forward lines with hopes of spreading offense around, but there has been one constant over the past several weeks: Braden Holtby.

The Capitals goaltender has started the past 13 games and will likely get the nod from Trotz again Thursday when Washington hosts the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA).

Holtby, who is 16-8-6 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, has helped the Capitals move into third place in the Metropolitan Division entering Wednesday. As for the heavy workload, Holtby says the more, the merrier.

"I feel fine," Holtby said after the Capitals practiced outdoors Wednesday. "I feel better when I play more. I feel better physically. I've always kind of hated days off in general. I've said it before: If I could play every game, I would. Whenever Coach calls my name, I'm more than happy to play."

Holtby attributed some of his recent success to goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who joined Trotz's staff last June after the two left the Nashville Predators.

"He's very passionate; he's got a ton of knowledge," Holtby said. "He's willing to share that knowledge. That's something that you want in a coach. A goalie-coach relationship has to be fairly close, and it's just fun to pick his brain and see what you can learn from him.

"I think there's definitely some improvements that I've made. I try to tighten things up in certain situations so that I don't get as spread out and nothing gets through me. It's been a process, but it's definitely coming."

Trotz also believes Korn's work has played a huge role in Holtby's recent success, along with two big free-agent signings last July.

"He's worked on a lot of things with Mitch Korn and our goaltending staff," Trotz said of Holtby. "Also, I think our system is a lot different than maybe the previous year in terms of our play and the additions of [Matt] Niskanen and [Brooks] Orpik. I think early [in the season], Braden's biggest problem was he wasn't getting very many shots, and that's hard for a goaltender when you're used to getting a lot of shots and not getting as much.

"I think he's gotten more comfortable. He's worked on his game. I feel very comfortable. He's worked hard; he's got that sort of blue-collar mentality where he really works on his game. He's filling in the holes where he knows he needs to fill in. He's doing a really good job. I'll ride him as long as he says, 'I'm good to go.'"

Holtby's consistency has not only helped Washington climb the standings in the Metropolitan, but it's also created a confidence on the blue line. Even when the Capitals make a mistake, they know their last line of defense is there to bail them out.

"He's won us some hockey games over the last couple of weeks," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "He's just been very consistent and come up with big saves when we needed him. That's all you can really ask for from a goalie, be consistent and make those stops when we need him, and that's what he's done."

This will be Holtby's first outdoor game in the NHL, but he had the opportunity to play in a similar atmosphere with the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League in 2012 against the Adirondack (now Lehigh Valley) Phantoms at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Holtby said he loves this type of event and the smiles it generates during practice and in the dressing room.

"It's fun to see the guys having so much fun," Holtby said. "We play so much throughout your career, and it gets to the point where you kind of don't appreciate things as much as you should. A day like today really shows how fun hockey is.

"It's great. It shows how many people here really appreciate the game. That's what this game is for. It's for true fans, it's for the hockey community. We're just glad to have it here. It's a fun thing to be a part of."


USA Warriors honored at Winter Classic practice

WASHINGTON -- When the horn sounded at the conclusion of practice at Nationals Park on Wednesday, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson raised his arms as though he was celebrating a goal, then wrapped one of them around one of the wounded soldiers who was given a chance to participate.

The USA Warriors were honored throughout the day by the Blackhawks and Washington Capitals, one day before the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, TVA). The wounded military personnel had their picture taken with the Capitals and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, then skated with the Blackhawks later in the afternoon.

"Having those warriors out there is fun," Hjalmarsson said. "You can see how they lit up in their eyes to be out there with us playing. We think it's equal fun for us too. We just want to show our appreciation for what they've been doing. We've done it a couple of times now and it's a lot of fun."

Daly was thrilled the League had a chance to give the nation's heroes an opportunity to meet some players and share the spotlight during one of its premier events.

"We've always been very close to the [USA] Warriors, going back a number of years, and actually the Chicago Blackhawks organization when they won the Cup in 2010," Daly said. "They made a trip down here and connected with the [USA] Warriors. It's something we feel strongly about. Obviously, Washington is a perfect platform to honor the military and all they do for us."

During practice, the Blackhawks and the USA Warriors competed in a game of shinny and had the chance to discuss the game with some of their favorite players. It was a day they won't soon forget.

"It means the world to us," said Mike Cain, who lost his right leg in Iraq in 2003, then had his left leg amputated because of nerve damage 10 years later. "We come out here and a lot of people think these guys are celebrities because they're NHL players, but to us they're just friends of ours because we've known them for so many years and we've gotten to hang out with them. We've done stuff with the Blackhawks for the past three years and the Caps have done so much for our hockey program. They've been very huge supporters."

"It's special. It's a lot of fun," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think they look forward to it and our guys really enjoy it. It's three games we've had with these guys almost three years in a row, a couple of times at Soldier Field.

"The thrill and the excitement of playing against your heroes, it's been fun. Those guys are sweating when they're done. They didn't take a warm-up like we did today, so we had a little bit of an advantage. But I think everybody at the end of the enjoyed themselves."


Raanta: Lucky to share this with Blackhawks family

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Raanta is preparing for his first Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. He's expected to back up starter Corey Crawford on Thursday against the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park, as he did on March 1 in Chicago's Coors Light 2014 NHL Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins .

Raanta agreed to offer his opinions in blog form leading up to the main event.

WASHINGTON -- I've been thinking a lot about how we got here of late. It's been a whirlwind.

We came in last night and that's when you start feeling the excitement that the Winter Classic is close. Everybody was more and more excited about that. This morning when we woke up we knew it would be a special day.

We came to the rink a couple hours early, long before practice, just so we could get out there, see the ice, and really just soak it in. It's a phenomenal stadium and it was a great feeling to be out there. You got that feeling of excitement that you're going to be out on that ice soon.

So we came back in the locker room and we were getting ready for practice, but there was a significant buzz. It was really fun.

We went out there for practice and the sun was still shining. What was great was watching Crow, Corey Crawford, trying to battle the sun because he got the goal that had the glare and I had the other one. That was hilarious to watch him battle that. He asked me, "How did you find the puck?" I laughed. I was like, "Hey, it was way better on my end."

You know what, though, it's those small things that make this so special, a little thing like that in practice makes it memorable even though we did all the normal drills. It even felt more exciting to do those normal drills because you could see all the cameras around the ice and knew they were all focused on you. That was a great feeling.

We then had a chance to play against the USA Warriors. That was great stuff. I think I let in nine goals, so it wasn't the best game of my life, but it was great to play with and against those guys. You could see the smiles on their faces and how much they enjoyed that, and you could see our guys smiling, so you knew how much we were all enjoying it.

After that, we stayed on the ice to skate with family and friends. That's another one of those special moments.

The game will come and I know I might not play because Crow will, but it's still about being a part of this team, this group, the whole month that we've had here with the cameras from EPIX here. It's a great feeling to be a part of this group. It's thrilling to be here even if I'm not playing. It's going to be a great experience again.

That's one of the special things about coming to this team, we get to do all these amazing things.

When I signed with the Blackhawks in 2013, I knew how good the organization was because that's what everybody was saying. When I was thinking about my options I just kept thinking, the Blackhawks have the plan, it's in motion, and the future is bright. As soon as I signed here I felt like I was part of it all.

All the trips we do, staying in the best hotels, all the great things; I was like a kid in a candy store when I came here. Then we had the outdoor game last year and I got so excited waiting for my new gear to arrive, and it was even cooler that it was snowing during the game.

The whole feeling about being a part of this group, it's a dream come true. It's a big family.

But when the game starts, you never know what can happen. I've got to prepare to be ready to go in, and hey, maybe we'll be winning 6-0 late in the third period and they'll say, "OK, Antti, go ahead."

I know goalies like to play the whole game, and that's fine. Everybody wants to be here, everybody wants to be a part of it, and if my role is to be a backup I'm fine with that. But if anything happens, I'm ready to go when they need me.

Blackhawks, Capitals enter Classic at top of games

WASHINGTON -- Two of the hottest teams in the NHL will play out in the cold Thursday.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who are 7-2-1 in their past 10 games to seize possession of first place in the Central Division, are set to face the Washington Capitals in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Washington is 6-1-3 in its past 10 games and has moved into third place in the Metropolitan Division. This will be the Capitals' second Winter Classic (they played the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in 2011).

"The message is, enjoy this experience," Washington coach Barry Trotz said after the Capitals practiced on the outdoor rink Wednesday. "Let's face it, this is pretty unique. It's something that you don't always get to do. You want to share it with your family. One of the things that I've tried to do with our group is just make sure [to] be pros about it."

The Capitals (18-11-7) have managed to find ways to collect points despite playing six of their past seven games on the road. They had a few hours to relax and were able to skate with their families after practice Wednesday, but captain Alex Ovechkin expects a return to the businesslike mentality when everyone arrives at the stadium on New Year's Day.

"It's going to be a fun time," said Ovechkin, who leads Washington with 17 goals in 36 games. "I'm pretty sure everybody is going to be excited, especially when it's going to be loud and the fans are going to be out there. Right now, it's all about fun … families, kids, wives, girlfriends, so it's always good.

"Tomorrow's going to be a new year and it's going to be a new day. It's going to be a huge two points for us. Mentally, it's going to be a very important game for us because we're going to play one of the best teams in the League. It's going to be a huge game for us. "

Chicago (25-10-2) has won back-to-back games and was 10-2-1 in December. But as well as the Blackhawks have been playing, they know Thursday presents a challenge. Not only must they brave whatever elements they'll face playing outdoors, but they'll encounter a team that has been playing better of late and one they play twice a season. Washington won 3-2 at Chicago on Nov. 7.

"Everyone's probably seen all those episodes on TV, they've probably seen the buildup towards this game," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said, referring to the "Road to the Winter Classic" on EPIX. "They're playing well and so are we. I think we've had a great month since that road trip back in November. We're looking forward to this. I think anytime you play an Eastern Conference team, especially if they're playing well, it's always going to be tough. You never really know what you're going to get because you don't see those teams too often. But for the most part, you focus on what you've been doing well, and hopefully it's enough. I think we'll be ready to play the same way we've been playing and get a little bit more energy considering the situation."

The Blackhawks will be playing their third outdoor game Thursday; they lost to the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field at the 2009 NHL Winter Classic and defeated the Penguins at Soldier Field last March in an NHL Stadium Series game.

"It's exciting," Chicago right wing Patrick Kane said. "You see this game on the schedule, it's definitely one of the first games circled, especially at this time of year. It's kind of almost the midway point of the season and it's something you can look forward to, especially when you get out there. It almost feels like a playoff atmosphere with it obviously being the Winter Classic and being outside. There's a lot of media and it's such a big event. We enjoy it."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, "We're definitely a fortunate organization and team to get a chance to play in more than one outdoor game. The setting, the opportunity, the thrill, and being in that fresh-air environment is second to none. Last year at Soldier Field, the snow, I don't know how many inches we got during the game, that was one you'll never forget. The first one at Wrigley was special as well.

"This is a beautiful venue here. I think everybody's looking forward to it tomorrow. It's a privilege, an honor; you have to take advantage of it because it's very special."

Quenneville said he expects a very competitive game, given the improved play of each team over the past month. Washington has done a solid job of adapting to Trotz's system in recent weeks and has become more committed to playing responsibly in its own end of the ice.

"We saw them earlier and I think both teams were probably OK at that stage," Quenneville said. "I think in the last month or so, both teams have won a lot of key games and it seems like their games are as good as they've been at any point all year long. It's a dangerous game. When you're playing [Trotz's] team, they play hard [and] they play the right way. They try not to give up much and that's the way their team is progressing. Ourselves, we hope to push it a little bit and try to score. It'll be a good contest and I'm sure everybody's excited about it."

But when the puck drops, Trotz is hopeful his players will remain focused on the task at hand.

"This is such a spectacular event, but the bottom line for the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks are these are big points in the standings," Trotz said. "I know we can't afford to give up any points to anybody."


Capitals look to buck home team trend at Classic

WASHINGTON -- A thought crossed Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green’s mind as he prepared for the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Chicago Blackhawks, so he sought an answer.

“I was curious how many home teams won,” he said after the Capitals practiced at Nationals Park on Wednesday.

The visitors have won five of the previous six NHL Winter Classics, including three straight. The Capitals are among them, having defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in 2011.

A poll of Washington’s locker room produced varied responses, though the most prevalent was the presence of family and friends, making sure everyone and everything are taken care of.

“There has been a lot more, I guess you can call them distractions,” Green said. “Things going on that maybe can affect the home team, with family being here and certain things you need to do around the house or at home that maybe on the road you wouldn’t have to.”

Forward Brooks Laich said Tuesday that one of his teammates reserved 46 tickets for the game.

“I would guess that the home team has so many people in town that maybe it’s a distraction,” he said. “The visiting team, it’s just a road game. They come in, they play a road game, and they leave.”

Forward Troy Brouwer, who was a member of the Blackhawks when they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 at Wrigley Field, mentioned pre-game preparations, particularly adjusting to the unfamiliar surroundings of their one-game home.

“It’s a home game for us, but it almost feels like a road game while the visiting team knows it’s going to be a road game, so that might be play into it a little bit,” he said.

Leading up to New Year’s Day, the Capitals have made sure not to lose sight of the two points at stake. In the process, they would like to join the Boston Bruins as the only victorious home teams in the NHL Winter Classic.

“We’ve got to make sure we are the second one tomorrow,” Green said.

Beagle: Capitals get used to elements during practice

Capitals forward Jay Beagle is about to play in his second Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Beagle suited up for Washington at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in 2011, and is expected to be in the lineup Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park.

Beagle agreed to offer up his opinions in blog form leading up to the main event.


WASHINGTON -- We had a good day of practice at the stadium today. It was great to take in the atmosphere and get an idea of what everything will look like when we play the Chicago Blackhawks tomorrow afternoon. At the same time, it's important to kind of embrace this experience and enjoy it.

It was nice to get out there and kind of know what we're going to be dealing with. We had the chance to kind of get used to the elements a little bit. It was really cool being out there. The conditions were really good. They actually were better than I thought they'd be. It got a little bit slushy in the one corner because of the sun, but that was about it.

Everyone keeps asking about the glare on the ice, but it didn't really affect me that much. It was actually pretty good. The ice conditions were really good. The glare was noticeable only a little bit going in the one direction, but besides that, it was pretty good. I know Petey (Justin Peters) was battling it a little bit, just because he was facing the sun. He said it was pretty tough to see the pucks coming.

I was fortunate to have my son, Brandt, with me on the ice when we all had our families on the ice after practice. It was a lot of fun. He's only eight months old, but he actually did pretty well out there. I was worried a little bit because it was right around his normal nap time, so I was expecting a breakdown. I stood him on the ice and he tried to actually walk, but he's not walking yet. I held him and he took a few steps, which was pretty cool. I think I'm going to go out and buy skates for him.

This is obviously a huge event, but we can't forget that this is a big game for us. We definitely will be focused tomorrow. We'll be ready to try and get a big two points.

When I leave here today, I'll spend the rest of the day with my family. I don't have big plans, especially with a big game tomorrow. I'll just relax and have a nice night and get a good meal in me. I'll be off to bed early for sure.

There's been talk that the game will be delayed a bit because of the glare on the ice, but that won't change how I prepare. I think we'll know by later tonight. When we know for sure, you just kind of readjust your meals and that's about it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

EPIX captures Capitals, Blackhawks at Christmas

There are stops along the road to the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic that show the true identity and personality of the players and coaches involved. These are stops that go beyond hockey, off the ice, into their homes, their private lives.

Hockey players for the most part like to be seen as ordinary people who can do extraordinary things. Around Christmas their extraordinary gifts melt away as family life takes over and they become ordinary people doing ordinary things with holiday traditions that are no grander than those of the average working family.

The third episode of "EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic" brings the viewer in touch with the people many of these athletes and coaches are away from the game.

The viewer got to spend Christmas with Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and his family in Vail, Col., with Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz and his family at their home in Clarendon, Va., with Joel Ward and his girlfriend in New York City, and with Troy Brouwer and his wife and 2-year-old daughter in their home. Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson served as the viewer's host at his Swedish Christmas celebration.

In addition, Alex Ovechkin opened his home to the cameras, and we got a slice of his home life at a dinner prepared by his mother and attended by Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and his wife. We learn that Ovechkin calls his parents before every game just to hear their voices.

Quenneville and his wife, Elizabeth, bought a home in Vail a few years ago so it could be a gathering place for his family, including their kids Dylan, Lily and Anna. They have a tradition of going out for a Christmas Eve dinner and hitting the slopes on Christmas Day.

The Blackhawks coach jokes that it's like the Quennevilles meeting the Griswolds for Christmas.

Through the lens, though, EPIX successfully shows a different, softer, looser side of Quenneville as he spends the holiday with his family. He jokes about how he goes slow and steady on the slopes and is just worried about keeping up with his kids.

"He's always stopping to rest," Anna says of her dad, "and after he always needs an Advil because he's sore."

Trotz put his softer, family side on display earlier in the series when he was shown taking his wife, Kim, and son Nolan to the National Zoo. Christmas with the Trotzes was different because the entire family, including older kids Tiana, Tyson and Shalan, had flown in from Nashville to spend the holiday season with mom, dad and brother Nolan.

Barry and Kim make homemade pierogis and let Nolan open a few gifts on Christmas Eve. Barry jokes that he knows there will be coal in his stocking.

The Capitals played their final game before the holiday break against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, so Ward stayed in New York with his girlfriend, Kathleen, for Christmas. They were shown people-watching and skating at Rockefeller Center.

Ward makes it a point to say that his time with Kathleen allows him to take the focus off of hockey, because the last thing she wants is for him to talk hockey in her ear all the time.

Brouwer talked about getting some downtime with his family as he made gingerbread cookies with his daughter. Hjalmarsson brought a taste of his heritage to Chicago with eight different types of herrings and meatballs serving as the featured attractions for the big gathering.


Catch up on "EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic" to get an inside look at the personalities of the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks on their way to the NHL's signature regular-season event. REGISTER FOR YOUR EPIX FREE TRIAL ›

The settings of those Christmas celebrations were built around hard work at the rink.

The episode begins with the emotional win the Blackhawks got against the Toronto Maple Leafs one day after assistant equipment trainer Clint Reif died. Captain Jonathan Toews talked about disbelief, but the message was on moving on, moving forward.

Back in Washington, the Capitals just finished off a 2-1 win against the Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center, but Trotz isn't happy, telling his team in an expletive-laden postgame speech that how they played was not good enough.

Washington went to New York the next night and lost 4-2, but Trotz seemed happier as he told the Capitals, who trailed 3-0 in the first period, after the game that they showed what they can do when they put on the work boots.

"This is a team we are going to pass," Trotz says of the Rangers. "I'm going to tell you right now, we're going to pass them."

In dismissing the Capitals for the holiday break, Trotz leaves them one final message.

"I wish you guys a good Christmas, enjoy the time, and when we get back we're going to do something special," he said.

Quenneville had to dismiss Chicago for the break after a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. He admits after the game that the emotional roller coaster the Blackhawks were on following Reif's death might have caught up to them, but he tells them to throw the game in the garbage and come back fresh.

Each team put an exclamation point on its return from the holiday break with a big road win. Washington defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0; Chicago won 5-2 against the Colorado Avalanche.

The third episode ends with a story about how hockey players are mirror images of one another, of how winning is what unites them, of how no matter what they do or where they play, the game never changes. The story is told with visuals of the ongoing rink build at Nationals Park. The underlying meaning is clear -- the game will be taken outdoors Thursday, but the stakes remain the same as the pucks, sticks, helmets and skates the players will be wearing.

As the finish line on this road to the NHL Winter Classic nears, the people involved become even bigger to the story of the signature event on the League's regular-season calendar. The third episode of the EPIX series allows us to see them for who they truly are, stripped of the pads, the helmets and the competition that fuels them. It allows us to see ordinary people capable of doing extraordinary things living what amount to ordinary lives just like the rest of us.


Ovechkin arrival key to hockey growth in D.C. region

WASHINGTON -- On a balmy Sunday afternoon in Reston, Va., a couple dozen young hockey players are trying to wait patiently for the ice resurfacing machine to complete its duty. They're fidgety, anxious to get out on the ice.

This region's sporting culture long has been dominated by the professional football team, but at the same time these kids were bumping into each other and swaying in anticipation, that football team was slogging to the end of another disappointing season on the other side of the District of Columbia and these young athletes (and their parents) don't seem the least bit concerned.

Youth hockey has exploded in the D.C. region. The level of participation has increased because of several factors. The biggest was the arrival in America's capitol city of a Russian dynamo on skates who has altered the Washington Capitals' position in the marketplace and helped the growth of the sport in ways few probably could have imagined.

When Alex Ovechkin leads the Capitals against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park on Thursday, there will be hockey fans young and old in the baseball stadium who have embraced the sport and the franchise because of his presence.

"I think without a doubt, Alexander Ovechkin coming to the Washington Capitals has increased the amount of young hockey players in the area exponentially," said Dan Houck, Hockey Director for Team Maryland, one of two Tier I youth programs in the area. "I think he's had a tremendous impact."

There were fewer than 8,700 hockey players registered with USA Hockey in 1997-98 through the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, which is the region that covers Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. By 2011-12, the total was more than 19,000, according to registration totals provided by John Coleman, director of the PVAHA.

The increase has happened at all levels, including youth and adult hockey. Participation by young girls grew by more than 17 percent just last season. It hasn't all been Ovechkin, but he's played a part in some of the other factors as well.

Washington's rise to power in the NHL with former coach Bruce Boudreau, and the team's move into a new practice facility in Arlington, Va., were part of the impetus for a big spike. From 2008-09, the year after Boudreau arrived, Ovechkin scored 65 goals to win League MVP honors and the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five years, to 2011-12, the number of registered players younger than 8 years old increased by nearly 63 percent.

USA Hockey has focused much of its efforts to expand the sport in this country on kids at the youngest age levels. The Capitals, in their part to help hockey in the area, have done the same and the region has become one of the fastest-growing in the nation.

"I grew up telling people in fifth or sixth grade that was I going to hockey practice and the response was, 'What is that? Where on earth around here do you go to play that? Why do you not play football or baseball?'" Matt Flynn, Manager of Events and Marketing for the Capitals, said.

Flynn and Peter Robinson, who grew up in the region playing hockey, head up the Capitals' efforts to impact the growing youth hockey community in the area.

"'Are your parents Canadian?' That was one that I got a lot," said Robinson, the Capitals' Manager of Community Relations and Amateur Hockey.

"Now when you tell someone you play hockey and live in Reston, they ask, 'Which of the six rinks closest to you do you play in?' It is common knowledge now. You're not that weird kid who plays a sport no one else does. We really try to pump a lot of our efforts into the younger kids. There are the learn-to-play programs. In games you'll see Mites On Ice, which are the 7- and 8-year-olds, and the pre-game flag kids which are the next age group up. It's the little kids, trying to get them excited and keep them in the game, is where our efforts really go."

Everything changed for hockey in Washington because of a Ping-Pong ball. The Capitals had made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, but the team aged and slid backwards from that point.

Enter Ovechkin, whom the Capitals chose with the first pick in the 2004 NHL Draft after winning the lottery. That phrase proved literal in more ways than one.

Ovechkin quickly became one of the best players in the NHL. More than that, he was one of the most entertaining, one of the most gregarious. He was a marketing dream, and a sports superhero for kids in the region.

"There was definitely a spike with [Ovechkin]," Robinson said of youth hockey participation. "It was kind of this "Ovechkin Wave," as people have referred to it. There were all these kids in the first year or two after he joined the team that started playing hockey. There was a huge jump and it was all because of Alex. We've seen this giant wave progress through the age groups. You can tell when they started and that there was an Ovechkin effect."

Parents became fans and wanted their kids to play hockey. Kids became fans and told their parents they wanted skates for their birthday instead of cleats or the newest pair of Air Jordans.

"We have over 800 kids who play in our program," said Kevin Burch, president of the Reston Raiders hockey club and a coach in the program for 15 years. "It used to be that we would be able to fill our program, but after Alex's first or second year we were using waiting lists a day or two into the registration process. We've seen a huge interest in the Learn To Play program and that has continued. The desire to play definitely increased rapidly."

Olie Kolzig helped the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 and also is partly responsible for the growth of youth hockey in the area, particularly the number of quality goaltenders who grew up emulating him.

Five of the 14 players from the area playing NCAA hockey are goaltenders, including Miami (Ohio) junior Jay Williams, whose parents had season tickets while Kolzig was patrolling the crease for the Capitals.

"I think there was a lot of excitement [in 1998]," Kolzig said. "It probably led a lot of kids to say, 'Ooh, I want to be a hockey player.' We were on TV a lot and there was so much excitement.

"Anytime you have a player like Alex Ovechkin who makes hockey the coolest sport in town, he single-handedly probably had the biggest influence on growing youth hockey in the area. There's no doubt it has gotten even bigger since he came."

Kids who are 10 years old now were born the year Washington drafted Ovechkin. Multiple youth coaches in the area said the level of talent noticeably is better in the younger age groups than it was a decade ago.

More of them are probably going to want to play on the wing and jump into the glass after they score goals, too.

"When we bought the team and I could find the original plans, we wanted to focus on helping to grow the game with young people," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "We did that. We had lots of meetings with rink owners and managers. We had youth hockey coaches meeting with our coaches. We would recycle equipment and help fundraisers. We did a lot, but as the team got better and Alex exploded on the scene, all of a sudden it was, 'Hey, we've got a really, really great player right here.' All of a sudden you'd see all these kids wearing No. 8 jerseys at the arena."

During the 2006-07 season, before Ovechkin and the Capitals began their ascent to title contender status in the following seasons, the team moved into a new practice facility on top of a shopping mall. Kettler Capitals Iceplex provided a home base for the organization and the team, and the dividends have extended to youth hockey.

Eight stories up in Arlington, at the Ballston Common Mall, are two ice sheets, a Capitals team store, a large pro shop and a central hub for the Northern Virginia hockey community.

"I think Kettler did put it over the top because at the time there wasn't any ice inside the beltway and Kettler became such a draw for D.C. and Northern Virginia," Leonsis said. "It still is the world-class, cool rink in the area, but it also didn't draw away from other places' business. We kind of expanded the market. We sold a lot of ice here, but the success of the Caps and Alex has sort of driven the business for everyone in the area. We've been spiraling up and I think the numbers speak for themselves."

Before Kettler opened, the Capitals practiced at Piney Orchard in Odenton, Md., which is closer to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore than the National Mall. Before that, they practiced a tiny rink in Mount Vernon, Va.

Flynn, a Reston resident, worked part-time in the pro shop at Piney Orchard because the Capitals were there. His morning commute was often two hours because of the area's rush-hour traffic.

"That building is old. It was dark. It was out of the way. At the time it served its purpose," Flynn said. "Being here [at Kettler], it is metro accessible. It is close to where they’re playing [at Verizon Center]. The facilities are top notch. When we have an alumni player come back who used to be at those old places -- we just had [former Capitals goaltender] Al Jensen here -- he just goes, 'This is unbelievable. I'd have been in the Hall of Fame if we had facilities like this. We got dressed in a trailer [at Mount Vernon] and we had one exercise bike the whole team would share if anyone got up on time to use it.'"

All of Washington's practices at Kettler are open to the public. On a normal weekday there might be a couple hundred people sitting in the stands. On a weekend or school holiday, the main 1,200-seat rink is near capacity.

When the Capitals play the Philadelphia Flyers every other year at Kettler in a rookie game before the main training camp begins, fans have to show a free ticket to patronize a standing-room only rink.

Players like Mike Knuble, Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera have sons and daughters in the youth hockey program at Kettler and have helped out as coaches. Dan Jablonic, hockey director for the Washington Little Capitals, said Chimera was on the ice for a youth practice the morning after he broke his nose in a game earlier this season.

"I used to live downtown and we would drive out to Piney Orchard. It was about a 40-minute drive and it sort of seemed like you were away from everything," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "When we got to Kettler, we got a grade-A, top-of-the-line place to train and practice and develop as hockey players and as a team. It has really brought everybody to within probably a five-mile radius of Kettler. Now with the proximity to the rink, fans will see guys at the grocery store or walking down the street. You'll see them at the Whole Foods in Clarendon or the Apple Store. Everyone is really close now. It makes it feels like a community.

"For a kid, I don't think there is anything better. Kids here are exposed to the game and to their heroes. Every day they have a chance to go and see their favorite players and get an autograph or take a picture with them. I'll never forget some great advice I was given as a young player. It was to never underestimate what impact just one meeting with a young child can have on his or her life."

Jeff Halpern was the first locally raised and trained hockey player to reach the NHL. One of Kolzig's teammates with the Capitals, Mark Tinordi, had a son who spent plenty of time wandering around the Washington locker room as a kid, and Jarred Tinordi played for Team Maryland before becoming the region's first locally trained player to become a first-round NHL draft pick, when the Montreal Canadiens selected him with the 22nd pick of the 2010 NHL Draft.

William Nylander, currently playing for Sweden at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and a 2014 first-round pick (No. 8) by the Toronto Maple Leafs, played for Houck and Team Maryland while his father, Michael Nylander, spent four seasons with the Capitals.

The next locally trained first-round pick might be Graham McPhee. The son of former Washington general manager George McPhee, Graham plays with the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., after playing for Team Maryland and the famed Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota where Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews once roamed the halls. He's committed to play at Boston College beginning with the 2016-17 season.

Williams went undrafted after playing for the Reston Raiders and then in the United States Hockey League, but is currently a junior for Miami with a 12-2-0 record, a 1.66 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage for the No. 6 team in the country in both major NCAA polls.

Sam Anas, a sophomore forward at Quinnipiac, won the Tim Taylor Award as the NCAA rookie of the year as a freshman. He spent time with two area Tier I youth programs, the Little Capitals and Team Maryland, before going to college.

"I think hockey as a sport has grown, but there are a lot more programs dedicated to individual skill development," Burch said. "It used to be the local clubs kind of just did their thing, but there has definitely been an off-shoot of things like the kids who are out there [on the ice] with goalie training and specific skill development. The kids that have been coming into the game are more skilled because there is more opportunity. And in some cases, which is both good and bad, that it can be a year-round sport."

As the players who began playing hockey because of Ovechkin continue to matriculate, more elite players are sure to come from the D.C. region.

At the 2013 WJC the United States team had four players, Brandon Saad, John Gibson, J.T. Miller and Vincent Trocheck, from the Pittsburgh area, an outburst of hockey talent that part of the country had never seen before. All four were born late in 1992 or in 1993, months after Mario Lemieux had led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles.

Given the huge increase in hockey players in the D.C. region similar to the early 1990s boom in Pittsburgh, there might be days like that coming in this part of the country.

"I think people used to think, 'Oh, you've got to go away from here to be a hockey player,' but it is not like that anymore," Jablonic said. "We've got enough quality programs in the area, and couple that with the fact that we have the best schools in the country, why would want to send your kid away when you can play high-level hockey and go to the best schools? That alternative is being presented and people are starting to understand that now."

In other areas of the country, one of the impediments for growth is the cost of doing business in the sport. The Washington region is one of the most affluent in the nation, so that's not a problem for many of the kids here.

The issue is not finding kids to play hockey, but rather finding a place for them to play. Registration numbers have leveled off the past couple of seasons, but it's not that interest has not waned, as the number of new players remains steady. There just aren't enough sheets of ice and time slots in the day to support another spike in participation.

"We definitely need more ice facilities in the area," Burch said. "We fill up our programs within a day and we're turning kids away. They're then going to one of the other facilities which are also maxed out. There are kids who want to play that can't because the resources are limited."

Burch said the Raiders are trying to work with the owners of SkateQuest in Reston to add a third sheet for the complex. The Capitals are involved with Fort Dupont, a rink in Washington, D.C., that is about to undertake an expansion process that will add a second sheet.

The interest, in part because of Ovechkin and the Capitals' involvement as well as USA Hockey's effort to grow the game through the American Development Model, has led to a surge in youth hockey in this area.

That has led to increases in lots of different ways. High school hockey has expanded incredibly. College hockey at the club level has expanded exponentially. Adult leagues are booming.

"I was at the Maryland prep championship game last year, and one of the league commissioners said, 'If you know anybody who has enough money to build a warehouse with like six sheets of ice and just basic locker rooms, you could sell the whole thing out for a year in 45 minutes,'" Flynn said. "There is such a need for more ice."

The Capitals, like many NHL teams in this country, have focused on helping produce more hockey players in the region because they've realized a hockey player for life is a hockey fan, and less likely to be fickle about the home team.

There are hockey roots in the region that weren't there 20 or 30 years ago. The Capitals have expanded their reach, whether it's through donating street hockey equipment to inner-city schools in Baltimore or welcoming kids from Virginia Beach and Richmond to participate in Mites On Ice.

"Obviously we can do more," Leonsis said. "One of the issues is real estate prices and convincing developers that an ice rink is the best use of real estate. We have a lot more to do because the growth was greater than any of us were expecting. It's also because it is such an expensive sport. And we've done a lot but we can do more in the inner city. Fort Dupont is a great example. I think over the next decade we'll be making bigger investments and more charitable work for underprivileged kids to be able to play more.

"We had this tagline of 'Building America's Hockey Capitol,' and while it was a marketing slogan we kind of believed it. We thought this was a great community, and we'd like to see more colleges playing hockey and more high schools playing hockey and keep upping the ante with helping to provide the means and the venues for kids who want to play the game to do so."


Beagle: Winter Classic excitement starting to set in

Washington Capitals forward Jay Beagle is about to play in his second Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Beagle suited up for the Capitals at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in 2011, and he's expected to be in the lineup Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park.

Beagle agreed to offer up his opinions in blog form leading up to the main event.

We had an optional practice today, which was good for us because it gave guys who needed a breather a chance to take one, and guys who wanted the opportunity to skate a chance to get on the ice for a loose practice.

Now that practice is over I am going to head out to lunch with my family. We've been on the road quite a bit of late so it'll be good to get some downtime with them. I've got my mom and dad in town as well as my mother-in-law. They're not here for long, so I have to make the most of it.

For us as a team this is about shifting the focus to tomorrow, to the practice day at Nationals Park. This is about shifting the focus to the Winter Classic. It's one of those things we've been preparing for since the start of the season, but it hasn't been the focus because it was not the next game on our schedule. It is the next game on our schedule now.

When we get to the ballpark tomorrow that's when it will hit me. It'll definitely hit me when I'm out there for practice. But to be honest we just have to make sure we stay focused and get a good practice in because that's why we're there, and that's what is most important. After practice we can spend some quality time with the family on the ice during the family skate, but the practice has to be crisp and good, and we have to get our bearings.

I don't think we necessarily have to figure anything out because we constantly adjust to new ice surfaces with all the rinks we play in, but obviously this will be different being that we'll be outdoors so we'll have to see if there is any glare, wind, all of that kind of stuff. It's always different when you're skating outdoors so it's a matter of getting used to that.

The other thing that I think is important is keeping with the same routine and staying level-headed. I'm usually pretty good at that so I don't anticipate waking up tomorrow feeling all kinds of antsy about getting to the rink, or the ballpark in this case, for practice.

Certain things will hit you, like it'll be cool to be on the outdoor ice, but it has to be another practice. I never get too excited or antsy for anything, not even playoffs. I don't think I will be that way for the game either. I wasn't for the game in Pittsburgh in 2011.

Of course I'll be excited and filled with adrenaline, but it's not crazy. It can't be. That would be counterproductive for me.

Matthews, Puljujarvi will be big stars of 2016 WJC

MONTREAL -- Much of the focus at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship has been the showdown between the top two prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft, Connor McDavid of Canada and Jack Eichel of the United States.

The two will go head to head on New Year's Eve when Canada and the U.S. complete preliminary-round play in a showdown between the two top teams of Group A at Bell Centre (4 p.m. ET, NHLN-US,

However, flying well below that radar is the arrival on the big stage of two of the top prospects for the 2016 draft.

Forwards Auston Matthews of the United States and Jesse Puljujarvi of Finland have not looked the least bit out of place in a tournament that is generally unkind to players who are so far from their draft year.

A big reason why in both cases is their size; Matthews and Puljujarvi are built like players one or two years older than they are.

Matthews, 17, is listed at 6-foot and 198 pounds, Puljujarvi, 16, at 6-foot-3 and 196 pounds. Each of them has displayed speed, smarts and skills to go with that brawn.

It makes you wonder how each of them might look a year from now when they will be under the glare of the NHL draft spotlight, with the WJC being held in Puljujarvi's native Finland. They will be that much bigger, probably more skilled and definitely more dominant among their peers.

"It's kids like Matthews and Puljujarvi that maintain my faith in hockey," one NHL general manager said at the WJC this week.

While the 2014 tournament has been all about McDavid and Eichel, it is entirely possible it will be the same thing for Matthews and Puljujarvi a year from now.

Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., has one goal, one assist and 11 shots on goal through three games for the U.S. But what has been most impressive has been Matthews' ability to play a 200-foot game. He's looked just as capable in his own end as he does in the offensive zone, where he can be a load to contain down low.

If there's one thing that jumps out about Matthews, it's that he doesn't necessarily jump out at you, at least not for the wrong reasons. There are no glaring errors, no poor positioning, none of the things you would expect from a player so young playing on such a large stage.

"It's a big adjustment, but you just have to go out there and not think about how young you are," Matthews said. "You just have to think everyone's a hockey player out there and just play your game."

Matthews has done that and improved throughout the tournament after a rough start in his first game against Finland, where he inadvertently re-directed Finland's only goal into the U.S. net and took a pair of bad penalties in the third period of a game tied 1-1, one the United States would go on to win 2-1 in a shootout.

As the tournament has progressed, Matthews has become one of U.S. coach Mark Osiecki's most important forwards.

"I think he's mature where he understands his game," Osiecki said. "He understands shift by shift if he's had a good shift, a poor shift. He's able to channel it in the right direction and not get frustrated. For a young kid to have the ability to not get too frustrated with himself and be able to understand the objective of his next shift, he really has a good handle on where he's at as a player."

Matthews, who got hooked on hockey at a young age while attending Arizona Coyotes games, already has been identified as one of the top prospects for the 2016 draft; he's getting a crash course in what that will be like at the WJC. Not only is Matthews witnessing the scrutiny surrounding Eichel, he has a front-row seat to what it might be like for him a year from now.

"I've been rooming with Jack, so he's definitely been a good guy to talk to, just seeing what he goes through every day with the media and stuff like that," Matthews said. "It's just how he keeps his head on straight and focuses on what needs to be done on the ice. I know the rest will take care of itself."

While Matthews has been remarkable in the way he has seamlessly fit in, Puljujarvi has been impossible to ignore on a Finland team that has struggled to score. He has been a magnet for the puck and appears to produce a scoring chance on nearly every shift thanks to his blazing speed through the neutral zone.

In Finland's 2-1 loss to Slovakia, Puljujarvi had a team-high six shots on goal and at least as many grade-A scoring chances. Every time he touched the puck, something exciting appears to happen.

Through three games, Puljujarvi has no points but has leads Finland with 18 shots on goal and has shown a knack for being at the right place at the right time on a remarkably consistent basis.

"This is the best possible opportunity to show what I can do," Puljujarvi said through an interpreter this week on his appearance at the WJC. "But I can't be satisfied if the team doesn't win and I don't score."

Puljujarvi is from Tornio in northern Finland, approximately 450 miles north of Helsinki, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Bothnia. He made his debut in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, this season with Karpat; he has three goals and one assist in 12 games.

"His laugh is amazing. He's typical northern Finland people; they're always happy," said Finland captain Artturi Lehkonen (Montreal Canadiens). "He's a big guy and he has a tremendous shot. I knew he would fit right in because it's a small rink and he's a big player, he can compete. He's been playing well but I know that he's frustrated also because he hasn't scored."

Puljujarvi is the sixth player to make the Finland U-20 national team as a 16-year-old, following retired NHL players Reijo Ruotsalainen and Janne Niinimaa, and Mikael Granlund of the Minnesota Wild, Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers.

That's a pretty distinguished list, and Puljujarvi has shown there's no reason he shouldn't be on it.

"He's going to be a star," the same NHL GM said after watching Puljujarvi play against Canada on Monday. "This was my first viewing of him, and usually I tell my scouts not to tell me anything on the underage kids, I just want to watch them. After his second shift I turned to my scout and said, 'Who is that?' He was incredible."

Someone else who got his first taste of Puljujarvi this week was United States defenseman Noah Hanifin, who is slotted right behind McDavid and Eichel on most 2015 draft projections.

"I didn't really know him when we were playing him, but I saw him play against Slovakia and he played very well," Hanifin said. "He's a good kid too.

"Auston's obviously got some competition."

While that competition remains in the shadows of McDavid and Eichel, it may not be the case a year from now when a similar show at the WJC will have Matthews and Puljujarvi as its star players.

Group A top spot at stake for Canada, United States

MONTREAL -- Canada and the United States each have heard their anthems played and had their flags raised following three successive victories at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Only one team will make it four straight on New Year's Eve when the North American rivals play Wednesday for top honors in Group A in the most anticipated match of preliminary-round play of the tournament at Bell Centre in Montreal (4 p.m. ET, NHLN-US,

Canada is the top seed in Group A with three regulation victories and nine points. The United States, with two regulation wins and one shootout win for eight points is second, but a win of any kind Wednesday would allow them to pass Canada for first place.

The winner and top seed in Group A will play a quarterfinal-round game against the fourth place team in Group B on Friday. The loser will earn the second seed and play the third-seeded team from Group B on Friday.

"When you play with the puck most of the time you're not in trouble, and when you look at both teams, we're two teams that make good plays with the puck," Canada coach Benoit Groulx said. "We're both puck-possession teams and we have a lot of strength on both teams. We can skate, we can make plays with the puck, we can control the puck, we have smart players.

"When you look at the matchup it's pretty even, so it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out."

The last time the United States beat Canada in preliminary-round action was Dec. 31, 1998, a 5-2 victory in Winnipeg. The last three wins for the U.S. against Canada have come in the playoff round. That includes wins in the gold-medal game in 2004 (4-3) and 2010 (6-5 in overtime); the U.S. also beat Canada 5-1 in the semifinals in 2013.

Canada leads the all-time series 28-3-1-6 and has outscored the United States 170-112; there also have been three ties. Of the 17 games since 2000, 11 have been decided by one goal and five have required overtime; twice the game has gone to a shootout. There was a 1-1 tie in 2000.

The game will feature plenty of intriguing storylines, starting with the head-to-head matchup of two of the top prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft, Canada's Connor McDavid (one goal, three points, 10 shots on goal) and Jack Eichel (one goal, two points, 14 shots) of the United States.

"I'm pretty excited," Eichel said. "It's always a lot of fun when you play Canada; it's always a battle. So we know it's going to be a tough 60 minutes; they're not going to hand it over to us. But we're really excited. New Year's Eve, you watch this game growing up, so getting to participate in it at the Bell Centre, it's going to be a great show."

Eichel, who serves as captain of the United States, isn't too concerned over the media-induced rivalry between him and McDavid.

"He's a good player but I'm not too worried about him right now, and I'm sure he's not too worried about me," Eichel said. "There's a lot bigger battle going on here. It's the United States versus Canada for the top seed in our bracket. I'm not worried about a 1-on-1 battle."

Each team also features a balanced scoring attack. Canada has 11 players with at least one goal, and five with at least two. Nicolas Petan (Winnipeg Jets) leads Canada with six points (one goal, five assists) and Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes), who has two goals, five points and a plus-4 rating, has been a tower of strength at both ends.

The United States has gotten goals from eight players, including a team-leading three goals and five points from center Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings). Larkin seemed to have good chemistry with Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres) in a 3-0 victory against Slovakia on Monday.

"They're a fast team and we're a fast team, so it should be a good game and I'm looking forward to it," Larkin said of facing Canada.

USA vs. Canada: What's at stake?

The New Year's Eve preliminary round showdown between Canada and the United States will have significant playoff round implications. Here's a quick breakdown of the scenarios in each case:

If Canada wins …

Canada would earn the No. 1 seed in Group A and play the No. 4 seed from Group B in the quarterfinals Friday. The playoff game would be held at Air Canada Centre in Toronto (8 p.m. ET, NHLN-US). The United States would earn the No. 2 seed in Group A and play the No. 3 seed from Group B at Bell Centre in Montreal (1 p.m. ET, NHLN-US). The higher-seeded team is the designated home team.

If United States wins …

The United States would earn the No. 1 seed in Group A and play the No. 4 seed from Group B in the quarterfinals Friday. The playoff game would be held at Bell Centre in Montreal (5 p.m. ET, NHLN-US). Canada would earn the No. 2 seed in Group A and play the No. 3 seed from Group B at Air Canada Centre in Toronto (8 p.m. ET, NHLN-US). The higher-seeded team is the designated home team.

-- Mike Morreale

The only regular linemate alongside Eichel on the top line through three games has been right wing Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild). U.S. coach Mark Osiecki has had Chase De Leo (Winnipeg Jets), Milano and Tyler Motte (Chicago Blackhawks) play left wing on Eichel's line in the opening three games.

"Canada is tremendously deep up front, in goal and on defense," Osiecki said. "We need to show discipline, stay out of the [penalty] box, and will need to roll four lines."

Staying out of the box certainly would bode well for the United States. Through three games Canada ranks first on the power-play (50.0 percent) with five goals on 10 chances. They also have killed off 11 opposing power plays.

McDavid has played much of the tournament alongside Nick Ritchie (Anaheim Ducks) and Canada captain Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators).

"It's going to be a lot of fun; it's a New Year’s Eve tradition now," Lazar said of playing the United States. "They've got a great team over there that we've seen throughout the tournament, but we feel we're up to the task. It's going to be two good teams going at it and hopefully we can put on a show for these fans."

Canada and the United States have benefitted from sound defensive play and solid goaltending. Canada has outscored the opposition 16-1 backed by goaltenders Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens) and Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets). Fucale was in goal for wins against Slovakia (8-0) and Finland (4-1), and has a 0.50 goals-against average and .975 save percentage; Hockey Canada announced Tuesday that Comrie would be in goal against the United States.

"It's obviously a classic," Fucale said of the rivalry against the United States. "Every year we wait for that game. It's going to be a great game, there's no doubt about it. There's a lot of rivalry between these two countries, so we're excited about it."

The U.S. has outscored its opponents 11-1 behind Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) and Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers). Demko (0.48 GAA, .978 save percentage) backstopped wins against Finland (2-1 in a shootout) and Slovakia (3-0).