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Merkley scores two, helps Canada defeat Czechs

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- Nicholas Merkley saved his best for last.

The Arizona Coyotes prospect had two goals to help Canada to a 6-2 win against the Czech Republic on Thursday in the final exhibition game of Canada's National Junior Evaluation Camp at WinSport's Markin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park.

For Merkley, the final pick of the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft, the performance couldn't have come at a better time.

"I think I set myself up pretty good (to make the team for the 2016 IIHF World Championship)," Merkley said. "But there's still a lot of work to be done that I've got to carry into the season. I think you just try to play your game. You look at the lineups and whatnot, and I think if you get too focused on that, it's not going to go too well. You've just got to play your game, and hopefully it works out."

With Canada up 2-0, Merkley worked a give-and-go with Brayden Point (Tampa Bay Lightning) before sliding a shot through Czech goaltender Karel Vejmelka (Nashville Predators) from the slot with 39.9 seconds remaining in the second period.

He added another to put Canada up 5-1 in the third, redirecting a cross-ice pass from Point behind Vejmelka at 7:01.

It's nothing Canada coach Dave Lowry hasn't seen before. Lowry's Victoria Royals share the Western Hockey League's B.C. Division with Merkley's Kelowna Rockets.

"I'm fortunate but unfortunate I get to watch him play quite a bit," Lowry said. "I know what his strengths are. He plays the game extremely hard and plays with a lot of energy. For a player his size, he plays with a lot of grease and he's a high-energy player."

Merkley led Kelowna with 70 assists and 90 points last season. He then had 27 points in 19 playoff games to help the Rockets to the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions. The 18-year-old had three goals and five points in the Memorial Cup. Kelowna lost 2-1 to the Oshawa Generals in the final.

Merkley already has won gold with Canada. He had four assists in five games to help Canada win the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound forward can imagine himself representing Canada next at the World Juniors.

"It'd be a huge honor," Merkley said. "You dream of it your whole life, playing in those big moments. It would be a special feeling for me."

Point and Olivier Leblanc (Columbus Blue Jackets) each had a goal for Canada, and Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes) scored twice.

Canada's goaltenders split the action in the final exhibition game of the camp. Mackenzie Blackwood (New Jersey Devils) made saves on all 13 shots he faced, and Samuel Montembeault (Florida Panthers) made seven saves on nine shots.

Jakub Zboril, a first-round pick (No. 13) of the Boston Bruins, and Jiri Cernoch (undrafted) scored for the Czech Republic. Vejmelka made 32 saves.

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