The 2009 World Junior Championships opened yesterday in Ottawa, and on the first day, the United States and Canada showed why they are expected to be in the gold medal game a week from Monday. Yesterday’s two other victors, Russia and Sweden, are expected to challenge the two North American teams over the coming ten days, but the two North American teams look to be very strong and getting stronger.
All ten countries participating in the WJCs will play in the Preliminary Round over the next week. During this round, each team plays four games in one of two divisions. Based upon each team’s position after the Preliminary Round, it will play in either the Playoff or Relegation Round to determine the tournament winner. Although the United States and Canada are both in division A, the format of the WJCs allows both teams to advance to the gold medal game and to face each other. That is what is expected, but given this format, it is not a sure thing.
To begin the tournament yesterday, Russia defeated the team from Latvia by the score of 4-1. Russia dominated the game throughout, with top prospects Nikita Filatov, Evgeni Grachev, and Dmitri Kugryshev playing on the same line for Russia. The Player of the Game for Russia was the undrafted Sergei Andronov. The 19-year-old winger has been a member of Tolyatti Latta Russian Super League and KHL team for the last three years. Netminder Nauris Enkuzens, who stopped 40 of the 44 Russian shots on goal, was named the Player of the Game for Latvia.
The second game of the day took place in Scotia Bank Place and featured the United States and Germany. The Americans won the game 8-2, but there were a few bright spots for the Germans. First, the play of undrafted 1990-born Toni Ritter. Ritter, who was named Germany‘s Player of the Game, has explosive speed and a very good shot. A recent addition to the QMJHL Montreal Juniors, Ritter looked like he occasionally took a shift off, but he was generally impressive in his skill and skating. German defenseman Domink Bielke also showed some real talent and skating ability.
However, the United States was overpowering in this game. Carolina Hurricanes prospect Drayson Bowman was named Player of the Game, an award given primarily because he scored two goals. Bowman’s shot was excellent, however, his passing was less than spectacular. Colin Wilson, who played on a line with James vanRiemsdyk and 2009 draft eligible Jordan Schroeder, looked excellent throughout the game. Although it was vanRiemsdyk who posted two goals in the game, Wilson’s creativity and shotmaking abilities were critical to vanRiemsdyk’s putting the puck past the Germans. Schroeder, who is a smaller player with lots of speed, also has excellent vision, creativity, and passing ability. Already ranked among the top ten prospects for this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, if Schroeder continues this level of play in the rest of the tournament, he most likely will move into one of the top five spots in the draft.
Goaltender Thomas McCollum, who did not get much work yesterday, had to be very sharp early, as his defensemen had a few early gaffes that led to German scoring chances. The defensive tandem of Kevin Shattenkirk and Cade Fairchild just did not work early in the game, so Coach Ron Rolston quickly changed the pairings and things got better.
One other US player deserves mention for his game. In the second period, Danny Kristo blocked a shot and looked like he had injured his left leg. After the injury, Kristo came back with a vengeance. Almost invisible until he blocked the shot, suddenly Kristo was everywhere. He was very aggressive in his puck pursuit during the penalty kill, and he showed excellent speed and decision-making. On a day where there were lots of US goals, Kristo made a very good impression in other ways.
Yesterday evening’s games started with a premier European match-up between Finland and Sweden. It was also a confrontation between two of the best European netminders selected in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Harri Sateri and Jacob Markstrom were in goal for Finland and Sweden, respectively, and it was Markstrom that prevailed in Sweden’s 3-1 victory. Sateri started the game off slowly for Finland, and by the time he righted the ship, his team was down 2-0. Finland just does not have enough firepower to come back from that deficit, and it was not helped by the team taking five consecutive penalties in the second and third period, including one by Sateri himself. Finland’s only goal scorer, Toni Rajala, was named the Player of the Game for his team, and Sweden’s Oscar Moller, who had five shots on goal in the last two periods, was his team’s best player.
The final game of the night was the highly anticipated match-up between Canada and the Czech Republic. A record-breaking highly partisan crowd packed the arena and was treated to an 8-1 Canadian victory. Petr Strapac, the Czech skater named Player of Game, was impressive for the Cezh team, with his excellent puck awareness and on-ice vision. In addition, goaltender Tomas Vosvrda kept the Czech team in the game during the first period, when he made save after excellent save on the Canadian shooters. Most shots were from the slot or right above the crease, and he made some of the best saves of the day in that period. Unfortunately for Vosvrda, he could not continue his acrobatics, and Canada scored four goals in the second period. Vosvrda was eventually lifted for backup netminder, but he showed some excellent skill in the first period.
There were several players who stood out on Team Canada, but one who shined so brightly, he stole the others’ thunder completely. There is no question that the night belonged to John Tavares. Last night Tavares showed why he is the top prospect in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, and why he will be a big-game player in the NHL. Tavares dominated the ice with speed, creativity, hockey smarts, and great hands. Equally impressive was his pass to Angelo Esposito for a goal in the second period. Had he kept the puck and scored on his shot, Tavares would have had the tournament’s first natural hat trick. Named the Player of the Game for Canada, Tavares is the star of the tournament thus far.
Also of note was the play of Angelo Esposito, who played on a line with Tavares and Chris Di Domenico. Esposito had one of the best games of his career, not only looking good offensively, but also hitting players all over the ice. Two-way play has been a question for the Atlanta Thrashers prospect, but Esposito proved last night that he has the ability to play in all three zones.