Through four games of the CHL Subway Super Series, the Canadians had seen quite the mixed bag of results.
And as the series shifted to beautiful British Columbia for a closing duet of games in Vancouver and Victoria, the fate of the host side rested with the Western Hockey League (WHL). The first four games of the annual event -- which serves as a prime chance to evaluate prospects vying for Team Canada's squad at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships -- were split by the Russians and Team OHL/Team QMJHL.
Goals from Ryan Strome and Frank Carrado propelled Team OHL to a much-needed 2-1 win at the RBC Centre in Sarnia, Ont. on Monday night, setting the stage for an exciting finish to the series.
Much like the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, the main attraction of Team WHL's lineup last night in Vancouver was on the blue line.
Captained by Blue Jackets first-round pick (second overall) Ryan Murray, Team WHL's defense featured names like Griffin Reinhart (fourth overall, New York Islanders), Morgan Rielly (fifth overall, Toronto), and Matt Dumba (seventh overall, Minnesota).
Last night's game was a goaltending duel between Laurent Brossoit and Andrei Makarov, and Team WHL came out on top via the shootout. Brossoit stopped three attempts by the Russians, and Team WHL scored on three of its chances to earn the two points.
Penguins' first-round pick Derrick Pouliot of the Portland Winterhawks will take part in the sixth and final Super Series game on Thursday night in Victoria.
If such a star-studded collection of talent isn't reason to tune into one of the CHL's most exciting events, well, I've got nothing for you.
The other storyline at play was the "rivalry" between Murray and Nail Yakupov, the latter being the No. 1 pick in June's draft. Is there a true rivalry there? Hard to say, but Murray drew a lot of ice time against the shifty Russian winger last night and it was clear that Team WHL's game plan was to finish their checks against him.
Other observations from last night's penultimate Subway Super Series game:
-- It was refreshing to see Murray play in a real, live hockey game. We got a chance to watch him play a scrimmage or two during Blue Jackets development camp in July and caught highlights from the Canada-Russia Challenge, but this was different. He's one of the top defensemen in the WHL and there's no doubt it was an honor for him to serve as captain for the WHL.
-- Rielly can really play. There's a ton of upside with this kid and you can clearly see why the Maple Leafs were so thrilled to pick him at No. 5 overall. He's a tremendous skater and can absolutely fly up and down the ice; as his shot gets better, he will be an even bigger threat from the back end.
-- This was my first time watching Mark McNeill play, and I was really impressed. He's a super-skilled center and the captain of the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL), and a former first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011. He was one of the most dangerous players for Team WHL last night and isn't afraid to throw his body around.
-- Heck of a performance in goal from Laurent Brossoit, a Calgary Flames draft pick and current goaltender for the Edmonton Oil Kings. It's not easy for goaltenders to get on Hockey Canada's radar and stick there, but a full game between the pipes (and a strong effort) has to give Brossoit a ton of confidence.
-- Murray was paired mostly with Saskatoon Blades defenseman Duncan Siemens, a really impressive kid who was a first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2011. He's a big, strong player who told NHL.com that he models his game after Scott Stevens.
-- Note to Siemens' opponents: keep your heads up.