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Halverson prepared to re-prove himself as U.S. starter

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Don't tell goaltender Brandon Halverson he has a good shot at being named starter for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland, to be played from Dec. 26, 2015 through Jan. 5, 2016.

Halverson, picked in the second round (No. 59) by the New York Rangers in the 2014 NHL Draft, is the only goalie at this week's USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp with experience at the prestigious tournament. He was the backup to Vancouver Canucks prospect Thatcher Demko at the 2015 WJC, and earned a 6-0 victory against Germany with 14 saves in his only start.

Halverson, who became the first Rangers draft pick in franchise history to earn at least 40 wins in a season of junior hockey with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League, has made 34 saves on 38 shots in two exhibition games for the United States at the evaluation camp.

"I've been here and backed up [Demko] at the World Junior tournament last season," Halverson said. "For me, it doesn't really matter right now. I'm just trying to focus on playing the best I can every game because these are all new coaches, new players. Last year was last year and it doesn't matter and I think I have to re-prove myself. I really want to show everyone that I can be the starting goalie."

The Rangers signed Halverson (6-foot-4, 179 pounds) to an entry-level contract on July 1, four days after trading backup goalie Cam Talbot to the Edmonton Oilers for three draft picks. Halverson went 40-5-2 with a 2.63 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and six shutouts in 50 games for the Greyhounds last season. He was asked if the trade of Talbot by the Rangers was a signal of even greater belief in his ability.

"I think a lot of people saw [the trade] coming because [Talbot] is an unbelievable goalie; he really proved it when Henrik (Lundqvist) was hurt," Halverson said. "For me, I'm not focused too much on that because a lot can change in the next 2-4 years. People can be moved around and, as of right now, it's something I'm not really worried about."

Halverson will be challenged for the starting role by Alex Nedeljkovic (Carolina Hurricanes), who was unable to attend evaluation camp because of injury. Nedeljkovic (6-foot, 190) also served as a backup to Demko at last year's WJC but saw no action. Signed to an entry-level contract by the Hurricanes in March, Nedeljkovic should be healthy enough to attend training camp in September.

"Nedeljokvic was a guy we had last year and we have a good book on him, so once he's healthy he'll be right in the pool of players," said Jim Johannson, U.S. national junior team general manager.

Nedeljkovic spent the past three seasons in the OHL with the Plymouth Whalers, who are now the Flint Firebirds.

Johannson said it's likely one starter and two backups will be chosen to represent the country at the 2016 WJC. Barring injury, Halvorsen and Nedeljkovic will battle for the No. 1 spot at selection camp to be held in Boston in December.

Also battling for a roster spot at camp are Luke Opilka (St. Louis Blues), Evan Sarthou (2016 draft eligible) and Kris Oldham (Tampa Bay Lightning) at evaluation camp. The U.S. is practicing and scrimmaging against teams from Sweden and Finland throughout the week.

"We've got two goalies that are returning, but Alex isn't here and that's a challenge in itself," U.S. goalie coach Kevin Reiter said. "Hopefully he's healthy in time. He should be because everything is on track. Halvorsen played minutes last year for us and did well. I don't want to put the cart before the horse, but they are top goalies and you just want to give everyone a fair chance to make this team."

Opilka was chosen in the fifth round (No. 146) of the 2015 draft by the St. Louis Blues. He signed an entry-level contract in July.

Opilka (6-1, 192), who had a 2.70 GAA, .888 save percentage and three shutouts in 33 games for the United States National Junior Team in 2014-15, has 22 saves on 27 shots in two exhibition games. He helped the United States win the gold medal at the 2015 World Under-18 Championship with a 3.01 GAA and .818 save percentage in two games.

"Brandon is a great guy and his experience definitely helps," Opilka said. "I'm just looking to work hard and keep competing."

Sarthou, who has 19 saves on 20 shots in two exhibition games in evaluation camp, won a gold medal for the United States at the 2015 World U-18 Championship, posting a 1.15 GAA, .927 save percentage and one shutout in five games.

In his second season with the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League, Sarthou (6-1, 179) went 11-15-2 with a 3.10 GAA, .906 save percentage and seven shutouts in 28 games. He is the only 2016 draft-eligible goalie at camp for the United States.

"I'm good friends with Opilka and Oldham; I've known them for several years now and I'm just meeting Halvorsen now," Sarthou said. "We're good friends, but obviously competing for a spot. I don't think I'm intimidated in any way. Halvorsen has been here before and he knows what to do and has kind of taken us under the wing.

"The more games we play, the more comfortable I feel."

Oldham (6-3, 205), a sixth-round pick (No. 153) of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, went 21-6-5 in 33 games for the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League in 2014-15. He had a 2.49 GAA and a .908 save percentage, and was chosen USHL goaltender of the week four times.

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