Observations on Team USA World Junior camp in Lake Placid

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The World Junior Championships aren’t until late December, but teams got their preparations underway with development camps both in Edmonton for Team Canada and in Lake Placid, NY for Team Finland, Team Sweden, and Team USA. I spent Thursday in Lake Placid to check out Team USA’s game against Team Finland to see how the team was looking. Team USA wraps up their camp today with a game against Sweden.

Team USA is bringing back a lot of talent from last year’s team and those more experienced players played strong against Finland. Panthers prospects Nick Bjugstad and Rocco Grimaldi looked good. Grimaldi’s speed and tenacity allows him to keep up with anyone and his ability to move with the puck is unparalleled. Bjugstad is a big kid and can be imposing when lining up at center. Team USA coach Dean Blais has moved him from center to wing and back to see where they can get him going in camp, but he looked good against Finland.

Another forward who looked good was 2011 New York Rangers first round pick J.T. Miller. Miller had a thunderous first period controlling play, forcing the issue offensively and pressuring Finnish defenders on the forecheck. While Miller did pick up a pair of penalties, one that Blais described as a “momentum killer” his abilities as one of the new guys on the team will help make Team USA a better squad in Edmonton at this year’s championships.

source: Getty ImagesMinnesota wild prospects Charlie Coyle (obtained in the Devin Setoguchi-Brent Burns trade) and Jason Zucker had solid games as well. Zucker was able to make up for a poor early penalty against Finland by setting up Bjugstad for a goal. Zucker’s abilities last year in the World Junior Championships showed he has loads of talent but perhaps some bad luck as he hit a lot of posts. The same happened against Finland, but his abilities on the ice are special and he’s set to be one of the big time leaders of this year’s team.

Team USA’s strengths over the years in the WJCs has come from their defense and goaltending and that’s no different this time around. Team USA is able to roll out there with a host of guys that can play different roles on the blue line. Hurricanes prospect Justin Faulk is a smooth puck handler and an offensive threat, especially on the power play. With guys like Jarred Tinordi and Stephen Johns, the U.S. can handle things physically and defend strong as well.

The guy to keep an eye on for the next few years, however, is Seth Jones. At 6’3″ 198 pounds and just 16 years-old, Jones is going to be a hotly watched prospect when he’s eligible for the NHL Draft in 2013. Seeing Jones get to play against Finland he’s raw, but there’s huge promise there. Blais says that Jones has some work to do yet though.

“He makes mistakes too but he makes them out of trying to do something, ” Blais says. “He’s got to communicate a little bit more. He’s so young that he doesn’t want to talk too much but he has to. He’s got to communicate when he’s open and get the puck. But certainly he’s pretty reliable and pretty impressive so far in the tryouts.”

While Jones may not make the final cut for this year’s WJC team, he’s showing that he’ll be a guy worth watching develop over the next few years.

source: Getty ImagesWhen it comes to goaltending, the U.S. has a wealth of riches. Dallas Stars 2010 first round pick Jack Campbell is set to be the man in goal again but 2011 Ducks second round pick John Gibson and 2012 draft eligible Cornell sophomore Andy Iles are there waiting in the wings. Iles plays a very aggressive style and Blais loves the way he plays goal.

“Andy’s been real good. Andy’s going to push Jack Campbell a lot,” says Blais. “I don’t know how his tean’s [Cornell] going to be if he’s the goalie or not, I’m not sure but for us he’s certainly impressed us. He’s going to challenge, in my mind, Jack.”

With a seeming wealth of riches in goal, Team USA would seem likely to not have too many problems finding a way to win even if Campbell struggles. Having more than one goalie to bank on worked great for Blais when he coached the 2010 Team USA WJC team that won gold as he had both Jack Campbell and Mike Lee to rotate in and out of goal as needed.

As for Finland, there was one player to take note of in Buffalo Sabres 2011 first round pick Joel Armia. Armia scored a beautiful goal in the first period to get Finland ahead early after capitalizing on a Justin Faulk blue line turnover. Good thing for Armia that he played well in an otherwise tepid game for the Finns as Sabres top brass spent the week in Lake Placid watching him including head coach Lindy Ruff and owner Terry Pegula.

Usually when you think of an NHL owner, you think of a guy in a suit and being rather super executive like. Not Terry Pegula as he was there looking like just another fan checking out the action in shorts, sneakers, and a Sabres fleece. Yes, owners are real people too.

Team USA’s chances to win gold at this year’s World Junior Championships are strong again and while Canada is by far the favorite, it’ll be up to the United States to find that motivation and extra gear to be able to win it all. Playing it this year in Edmonton and Calgary will make the atmosphere even more intense to deal with, but that didn’t stop Blais and Team USA in 2010 from winning it all in Canada, and they’ll hope to find that magic once again.

Rangers punch playoff ticket to wrap up night of clinched spots

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The New York Rangers weren’t ecstatic that Chris Tierney‘s 4-4 goal sent their game to overtime against the San Jose Sharks, but either way, getting beyond regulation punched their ticket to the playoffs on Tuesday night.

For the seventh season in a row, the Rangers are in the NHL’s postseason. They fell to the Sharks 5-4 in overtime, so they haven’t locked down the first wild-card spot in the East … yet. It seems like a matter of time, however.

The Rangers have now made the playoffs in 11 of their last 12 tries, a far cry from the barren stretch where the Rangers failed to make the playoffs from 1997-98 through 2003-04 (with the lockout season punctuating the end of that incompetent era).

New York has pivoted from the John Tortorella days to the Vigneault era, and this season has been especially interesting as they reacted to a 2016 first-round loss to the Penguins by instituting a more attacking style. The Metropolitan Division’s greatness has overshadowed, to some extent, how dramatic the improvement has been.

This result seems like a tidy way to discuss Tuesday’s other events.

The drama ends up being low for the Rangers going forward, and while there might be a shortage of life-or-death playoff struggles, the battles for seeding look to be fierce.

Oilers end NHL’s longest playoff drought; Sharks, Ducks also clinch

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There’s something beautiful about the symmetry on Tuesday … unless you’re a Detroit Red Wings fans, maybe.

On the same night that the longest active NHL playoff streak ended at 25 for Detroit, the longest playoff drought concluded when the Edmonton Oilers clinched a postseason spot by beating the Los Angeles Kings 2-1.

The Oilers haven’t reached the playoffs since 2005-06, when Chris Pronger lifted them to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

In doing so, other dominoes fell. Both the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks also punched their tickets to the postseason.

The Sharks, of course, hope to exceed last season’s surprising run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks continue their run of strong postseasons, even as their Cup win fades to the background ever so slightly. All three teams are currently vying for the Pacific Division title.

The Western Conference’s eight teams are dangerously close to being locked into place, as the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues are all close to looking down their spots as well.

Want the East perspective? Check out this summary of Tuesday’s events from the perspective of the other conference.

Craig Anderson took his blunder hard – probably too hard – in Sens loss

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Members of the Ottawa Senators were quick to come to Craig Anderson‘s blunder (see above) in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, and it’s easy to see why.

It’s not just about his personal struggles, either. When Anderson’s managed to play, he’s been flat-out phenomenal, generating a .927 save percentage that ranks near a Vezina-type level (if he managed to play more than 35 games).

Goaltending has been a huge reason why Ottawa has at least a shot of winning the Atlantic or at least grabbing a round of home-ice advantage, so unlike certain instances where teams shield a goalie’s failures, the defenses are absolutely justified.

Anderson, on the other hand, was very hard on himself.

You have to admire Anderson for taking the blame, even if in very much “hockey player” fashion, he’s not exactly demanding the same sort of credit for his great work this season.

It’s official: Red Wings’ playoff streak ends at 25 seasons

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When we look back at the 2016-17 season for the Detroit Red Wings, it will be remembered for some said endings.

It began without Pavel Datsyuk. We knew that their last game at Joe Louis Arena this season would be their last ever. And now we know that Joe Louis Arena won’t be home to another playoff run.

After 25 straight seasons of making the playoffs – quite often managing deep runs – the Red Wings were officially eliminated on Tuesday night. In getting this far, they enjoyed one of the greatest runs of longevity in NHL history:

Tonight revolves largely around East teams winning and teams clinching bids – the Edmonton Oilers could very well end the league’s longest playoff drought this evening – but this story is more solemn.

EA Sports tweeted out a great infographic:

“Right now it’s hard to talk about it, because you’re a big reason why it’s not continuing,” Henrik Zetterberg said in an NHL.com report absolutely worth your time.

Mike “Doc” Emrick narrated a great look back at Joe Louis Arena here: