The United States national junior team earned its first preliminary-round victory against rival Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship in 17 years with a 4-2 win Saturday at Helsinki Ice Hall in Finland.
Finland and Sweden also had regulation wins against Belarus and Switzerland, respectively, and Russia survived a scare from the Czech Republic in a shootout on the first day of tournament competition.
The United States received goals from defenseman Louis Belpedio, a third-round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Minnesota Wild, and Auston Matthews, an A-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list for the 2016 NHL Draft, late in the third period to snap a 2-2 tie. Colin White (Ottawa Senators), who was named U.S. player of the game, and defenseman Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets) also scored and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic (Carolina Hurricanes) made 25 saves, including 11 in the third.
"[The win] gives us a feather in our cap because we've beaten Canada but now we have to settle in and take care of the other teams," U.S. coach Ron Wilson told NHL Network. "For me, personally, it's the first game I've won in four years and that means a lot actually."
Canada, which entered 14-2-1 in the past 17 games against the United States at the World Junior Championship, received goals from Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders) and Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes), who was named Canada's player of the game. Goaltender Mason McDonald (Calgary Flames) made 21 saves.
The victory by the United States was the first against Canada in the preliminary round since a 5-2 win Dec. 31, 1998. The U.S. last beat Canada 5-1 on Jan. 3, 2013 in the semifinals of the medal round.
The United States play Sweden, an 8-3 winner against Switzerland, and Canada plays Denmark on Monday in Group A action. Russia, which received a shootout goal by Maxim Lazarev in the third round to beat Czech Republic 2-1, play Finland with first place in Group B at stake on Monday. Finland defeated Belarus 6-0.
Here are five things we learned on the first day of action in the World Junior Championship:
USA thrives under pressure: The United States got off to an inauspicious start when first-line right wing Alex DeBrincat, an A-rated skater on Central Scouting's November players to watch list, was given a game misconduct for spearing Canada forward Travis Konecny (Philadelphia Flyers) 17:20 into the first of a scoreless game.
Wilson decided to have Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) take DeBrincat's spot alongside center Matthews and left wing Matthew Tkachuk for the remainder of the game. Ryan Donato (Boston Bruins) filled in for Boeser on the third line with center Nick Schmaltz (Chicago Blackhawks) and Ryan MacInnis (Arizona Coyotes). The Americans didn't miss a beat.
After allowing Canada to tie the game 2-2 on Strome's power-play goal 10:45 into the third, the U.S. went back on the attack and eventually was rewarded when Belpedio's shot from the point deflected off the stick of Canada defenseman Joe Hicketts (Detroit Red Wings) at 16:42. Matthews cleaned up a shot from the point by Werenski that trickled through the pads of McDonald less than a minute later for a 4-2 advantage.
"Going into the third period the message was staying on your toes and keeping the puck in front of you," Wilson said. "From wherever, we had to shoot the puck. We turned away a few shots early in the game but in the third, especially, got our point shots through and were rewarded for it."
Nedeljkovic comes up big: There were some questions surrounding who would win over the United States coaching staff as starting goalie entering the tournament. Nedeljkovic, who was a member of the 2015 U.S. national junior team but did not play a game, certainly made his team proud with a fine effort to begin the tournament. Wilson said he will give Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers) an opportunity at some point, but Nedeljkovic earned high praise against Canada. His biggest save came less than a minute before Belpedio's go-ahead goal when he denied Strome with his left glove off a quick release on a 2-on-1.
"It's exciting and it's hard to explain but it is just one game," Nedeljkovic told NHL Network. "We still have three more to go in the preliminary round and hopefully a long playoff run."
Puljujarvi propels Finland: Right wing Jesse Puljujarvi proved why scouts are raving about him as a potential top-10 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft when he had two goals, three points and a plus-2 rating to lead the host country against Belarus at Hartwall Arena.
Puljujarvi, an A-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list, scored in the first and third periods for Finland. Patrik Laine, an A-rated forward by Central Scouting, also scored and Olli Juolevi, an A-rated defenseman on Central Scouting's November list, had two assists. Right wing Sebastian Aho (Carolina Hurricanes) had three assists.
Georgiev on my mind: Valeri Bragin, coach of the Russia national junior team, opted to start undrafted goaltender Alexander Georgiev instead of Ilya Samsonov against the Czech Republic at Hartwall Arena.
Samsonov, a first round pick (No. 22) of the Washington Capitals in the 2015 NHL Draft, will most likely get the nod at some point but the decision to go with Georgiev was interesting and one that worked for the veteran coach. After allowing a goal to Czech Republic forward Michael Spacek (Winnipeg Jets) 13:54 into the second period, Georgiev stood his ground to finish with 24 saves. The 19-year-old, who was named player of the game for Russia, didn't allow a goal on three shots in the shootout.
Costly win for Sweden? Sweden defeated Switzerland but may have lost forward William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) for some time after he sustained an upper-body injury in the first period at Helsinki Ice Hall.
Nylander opened the scoring off an assist from his brother, Alexander Nylander, 1:21 into the first before exiting the game when he took a hit from Switzerland forward Chris Egli at center ice at 15:37. Egli was given a game misconduct for checking to the head and neck area. TSN.ca reported after the game the Swedish team doctor said Nylander was taken to a hospital, but results were inconclusive on his status for Monday against the United States.
Dmytro Timashov (Toronto Maple Leafs) had two goals and one assist and Alexander Nylander, an A-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list, had three assists. Sweden also received fine efforts by defenseman Marcus Pettersson (Anaheim Ducks) with three assists and defenseman Gabriel Carlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets) with two assists.