MONTREAL – A lot of the attention surrounding the preliminary-round game between Canada and the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championship on Wednesday was the matchup between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.
But the top two prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft were barely ever on the ice together. Instead, it was an entirely different matchup that allowed Canada to come away with a 5-3 win to claim first place in Group A.
Canada coach Benoit Groulx used the advantage of having the last change to play defensemen Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers) and Shea Theodore (Anaheim Ducks) and the forward line of Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres), Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) and Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) against Eichel's line the entire game.
That group shut down Eichel, Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild) and Tyler Motte (Chicago Blackhawks) by doing what that line had done so successfully to that point in the tournament; controlling the puck and keeping it in the offensive zone, far away from the Canada net.
"He's a talented player and he's got two linemates helping him out as well," Reinhart said. "They're good, but we tried to focus on our game. I thought we played the same way as we have, and we were able to have the puck for the most part."
Eichel had a tremendous chance to score in the first minute of the game. After Motte drove hard to the net to create a rebound, Eichel got the puck in the slot and had most of the net to shoot at, but Nurse came sliding into the crease with Tuch and Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) got across, and that combination of bodies managed to keep Eichel's shot out.
But from that point, Eichel's line spent most of the game chasing the puck, and the few times they got it in the offensive zone they were quickly neutralized by Nurse and Theodore.
"They played physical," Eichel said. "That's the way they're going to play so you have to battle through it."
Though they were successful against Eichel, Canada still came away impressed with his game.
"He's just fast," Theodore said. "He's got great hockey sense and he really knows what areas of the ice to go to if he wants to get opportunities. I felt like we did a good job tonight."
Eichel's line bookended its game with quality chances, with Tuch getting off a shot from the slot while the U.S. trailed by a goal in the final minute of regulation.
But just as with Eichel's chance in the opening minute of the game, Nurse intervened by blocking Tuch's shot and sweeping the puck to the corner with his glove moments before Reinhart scored into an empty net to make it 4-2 Canada.
"First of all [Canada] played well against him, absolutely," U.S. coach Mark Osiecki said. "The thing I will say is I thought our guys didn't get rattled. Whether they had success or not, Jack and his linemates didn't get rattled, they kept on plugging away. But [Canada] did a nice job on them, no doubt about that. And that's to be expected.
"When you've got that elite profile on you, you're going to draw a lot of attention."
It was appropriate that Nurse make that play at such a pivotal moment of the game because of how well he and Theodore and Reinhart's line neutralized the biggest offensive threat for the U.S.
Winning the matchup that no one was talking about was a big reason Canada won the game.