The USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp wrapped up in Lake Placid on Saturday with Team USA topping the Russian juniors for the third time in four games, 6-0, in a penalty-filled affair. New York Rangers prospect Derek Stepan solidified his bid for a spot at this winterâ€™s World Junior Championship with another multiple point performance, scoring a five-on-three power play goal and picking up an assist on one of two man-advantage goals by Jerry Dâ€™Amigo. That gave the 2008 second round pick eight points in four games against Russia, which lead the US squad.
Fellow Rangers prospect Ryan Bourque returned to the line-up after getting the night off on Friday, and was a force on the penalty kill despite being held scoreless for the first time in the three games he played against the Russians. Paired with Jordan Schroeder, Bourque used his speed and anticipation to stifle the Russian power play, pinning them in their defensive zone, and even out shooting the unit by three shots during an early second period opportunity.
The most noticeable Ranger prospect on Saturday evening was 2009 first round pick Chris Kreider. Despite being held off the scoreboard again — he finished the four-game series against the Russians without a single point — the 18-year old was very involved in the game and had (at least) five shots on goal. His line with Tyler Johnson and Jeremy Morin did a great job of cycling the puck down low and generating scoring chances early in the game, and as the game went on (and after Morin was ejected for fighting) Kreider got more and more ice time, including some time on the power play. He drew two penalties in the third period (though took one of his own in the second) and was involved physically, though he came out on the losing end of his two most remarkable hits.
As for the game itself, it wasn’t a particularly good watch. It was played on the USA Rink at the Herb Brooks Arena, one of three available rinks in the complex and the only one with an NHL-sized surface. Really, it’s nothing more than a practice rink, with a small, permanent, elevated viewing platform with some bleachers, and a few random sets of low bleachers tossed around one half of the rink at ice level. As interesting as it was to watch a game of that skill level from right along the glass — it gives you a real appreciation for how big the players really are and how fast they move — it doesn’t allow you to get a good feel for the flow of game (especially since it left the far end of the ice surface obscured by scratched, puck-marked glass, players coming on and off the ice from the benches, and other spectators.) To top things off, the PA system made goal and penalty announcements sound like the teacher’s voice in a Charlie Brown cartoon, so it was virtually impossible to be sure who had scored or why players were being ushered into the penalty box.
That all would have been easier to forgive if the game itself was less one-sided. The US squad clearly outplayed the Russian team from the start, but after a few questionable penalty calls went against them midway through the second the Russians essentially gave up. In particular, a pair of minors against Vladimir Tarasenko, one of Russia’s best player in the series, who also received a game misconduct for fighting on the same play when he answered the call issued by Morin, really seemed to take the wind out of their sails. The questionable calls continued in the third, with the Russians getting more and frustrated at every whistle. To be honest, the visitors had a legitimate gripe. The officiating was pretty brutal. When all was said and done, the US juniors had been given 21 power plays to Russia’s nine. While most of the calls against the Russian squad were technically legitimate penalties, there were comparable plays by US players that were let go, and the constant whistles completely ruined any flow the game might have had.
The lopsided penalty calls did lead to one of the most entertaining moments in the game, however. After being penalized for high sticking in the closing minutes of the third period, Russian goaltender Alexei Trifonov skated off the ice and into the penalty box in protest. The demoralized netminder, who faced 45 shots in the game (compared to 12 by his US counterpart Mike Lee), stayed in the box for a about 45 seconds while his teammates set up the faceoff with a defenseman standing in in goal before the referee convinced him to return to his crease. (Contrary to what I posted on Twitter, the original penalty was a double minor, Trifonov was not assessed the extra two for unsportsmanlike conduct.)
For the real-time updates I posted from the game, see the aforementioned Twitter feed. (Apologies for the errors on some of the penalty calls… without PA announcements I was left to guess.) For the a full game summary, including scoring and penalties, see the USA Hockey web site. USA Hockey also has video highlights and photos from the evaluation camp (though not from Saturday night’s game — yet.)
As for the Rangers prospects, after seeing two games in Lake Placid, I think all three stand a good chance of making the US roster for the World Junior Championship later this year. After his performance against Russia, Stepan seems all but guaranteed a spot. He was particularly impressive on the power play, which he quarterbacked the left half boards. He also killed penalties and was frequently on the ice for important draws. If there’s any cause for concern it would be that only one of his eight points came at even strength, but that’s unlikely to prevent him from earning a roster spot.
I only had the opportunity to see Bourque play in one game, and was more impressed with his defensive play and forechecking than anything he did offensively. If he was one of the players who’s place on the World Junior Championship squad was still in question, you’d think the Team USA staff would have wanted to see him play in all four games, rather than sitting him (along with linemates and 2009 first round draft picks Schroeder and Kyle Palmieri) for Friday night’s match. Despite being held scoreless in the final game, he finished the series against the Russians with a respectable three points in three games, all of them coming at even strength. That and his smarts on the PK would seem to put him in good position to earn a spot on the team.
Kreider is probably the only question mark for making the team coming out of camp, but his play on Saturday should go a long way towards convincing the coaching staff to give him a shot in Saskatoon. While his skating speed is well documented — and was frequently on display against the Russians — I didn’t expect him to be as scrappy as he was. Unable to buy a point — and clearly frustrated by the fact at the end of Saturday’s game — he gave the impression that he was trying to contribute in any other way possible. He was good along the boards and tough in front of the net and didn’t back down from anyone. Still, his inability to convert on multiple chances and the fact he got whistled for a penalty in each of the four games could work against him. Whether he gets the call will likely hinge on how he does in the first half of his freshman year at Boston College. Hopefully, his experience at camp will send him off to school feeling confident that he can hold his own against the higher level of competition.
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