PITTSBURGH — Through the first week of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the North American 23-and-under team has been the talk of the tournament thanks to their speed and a run-and-gun approach that resulted in nine goals over their first two games.
That high powered offense was slowed down a little on Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh in a 3-2 loss to the Czech Republic.
After three games it is pretty clear the team has the talent up front to score goals and push the pace of any game they play due to their speed. The big questions that remain are whether or not they will be able to slow down the more talented teams in the tournament defensively, and which goalie will end up being the No. 1 guy when the real games begin for them on Sunday when they take on Finland.
Even though coach Todd McLellan was not ready to commit to a starter after Wednesday’s game, Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray seems to be the favorite to earn that spot.
He did not do anything to hurt his cause with his performance on Wednesday afternoon.
Murray played the first two periods against the Czech Republic and stopped 16 of the 17 shots he faced, including a number of great scoring chances early in the game that were partly the result of the aggressive North American approach offensively.
They got caught up the ice on more than one occasion — and at times exited the defensive zone before they were able to secure possession of the puck — and left their goalie on a bit of an island. Murray was up to the task and kept his team in the game. The only goal he allowed was an Ondrej Palat shot that was deflected in the slot and took a weird bounce into the net.
Murray received the bulk of the playing time in the first three North American pre-tournament games, playing five out of the nine periods and stopping 39 out of 40 shots. He recorded a 23-save shutout in his first game, a 4-0 win over Team Europe.
He was just as good, if not better, on Wednesday.
“He’s been really good, ” said McLellan after Wednesday’s game.
“But in fairness to the other goaltenders and our staff, management and coaching staff, I am not prepared to anoint him yet. We have to sit down and evaluate the game. But I think you have pretty good eyes when you saw him play extremely well. That is the same thing we saw, so odds are he is going to be our guy. But we need to respect the process.”
Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson played the second pre-tournament game and allowed four goals on 33 shots against Team Europe.
Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck played the third period on Wednesday and surrendered two goals on only 12 shots, including the game-winner to Tomas Plekanec on a bad angle shot just minutes after North America rallied to tie the game at two.
All three goalies are relatively inexperienced at the NHL level (Gibson has played in the most games at this point, having appeared in 66) but Murray is coming off of a playoff run in Pittsburgh where he filled in for an injured Marc-Andre Fleury and never gave up the job on his way to backstopping the Penguins to a Stanley Cup win.