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Prospects vie for U.S. WJC goaltending spots

by Mike G. Morreale

BOSTON --Earning the role as starting goaltender for the United States at the IIHF 2016 World Junior Championship won't come easy.

There are four viable candidates, three of whom are present at the United States national junior selection camp this week on the campus of Boston University.

Some believe Brandon Halverson (6-foot-4, 179 pounds) of Sault Ste. Marie in the Ontario Hockey League and Alex Nedeljkovic (6-0, 190) of Niagara (OHL) have the inside track. Luke Opilka of Kitchener (OHL) and Tyler Parsons of London (OHL) are the other hopefuls.

"I definitely revel in this type of situation [at select camp]," Halverson said. "If you come in and they just hand you the spot, sometimes you lose that focus or edge to really stay in there. It's good that I have these good shooters and good goalies next to me. It's going to be a good battle."

Opilka (6-1, 192) was unable to make camp on Tuesday due to an illness, but could join the team by Thursday if medically cleared. Parsons (6-1, 180), a B-rated goalie on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list, has won his past seven games, including four in December when he posted a 1.91 goals-against average and .938 save percentage for the Knights.

"Each goalie brings a little bit something different," U.S. goalie coach Kevin Reiter said. "Halverson is more of a butterfly guy where Nedeljkovic is a little more of a hybrid. Halverson has a bigger net presence and uses that size really well and he'll look over guys through screens. Nedeljkovic and Parsons are a little smaller so they're relying on their athleticism and lateral movement.

"Nedeljkovic does have great goalie IQ in my opinion; he can be patient on his feet and reads the play and release really well."

Halverson, selected in the second round (No. 59) by the New York Rangers in the 2014 NHL Draft, is the only goalie with playing experience in the WJC. He backed up Vancouver Canucks prospect Thatcher Demko at the 2015 WJC, and had a 6-0 victory against Germany on 14 saves in his only start.

"Mentally I've been thinking about this camp all year so every time I stepped on the ice it was in the back of my head," Halverson said. "I'm hoping to take this role as the starter. I want to lead the team and that's what I'm trying to do. I know it's going to be tough but nothing is easy."

Nedeljkovic (Carolina Hurricanes, 2014 Draft) served as the third goalie at the 2015 WJC but did not see any action. He'll need to quickly prove he deserves the No. 1 spot, because he was unable to attend the USA Hockey junior evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in August after having hip surgery in May.

"I'm more confident than last year," Nedeljkovic said. "Just being a year older; you've gone through it once so you know what to expect. You feel more confident about what's going on and you're not worried about who's out there, who's shooting or who's watching."

USA Hockey will take three goalies to the 2016 WJC in Finland, but coach Ron Wilson is not ready to announce a starter or backup.

Halverson seemed to gain traction with the coaching staff last year after finishing with six saves on six shots in a pre-tournament exhibition game against Boston University on the final day of select camp. Nedeljkovic took over midway through the second period of that game and allowed two goals on 14 shots.

"Competition brings out the best in everybody," Nedeljkovic said. "Last year wasn't my best showing and I'm kind of using that as motivation to do even better. I want more playing time and want to take this team as far as we can go."

Nedeljkovic knows the importance of playing well in this year's pre-tournament exhibition against the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on Friday.

"Definitely the game against UMass-Amherst will help us get a better idea on where we're at," Reiter said.

Nedeljkovic and defenseman Josh Wesley (Hurricanes) were traded to Niagara for goaltender Brent Moran (Dallas Stars) and five future OHL draft picks on Dec. 7. Nedeljkovic is 2-1-0 with a 1.67 GAA and .946 save percentage in three games since the trade. In 22 games this season, he's 11-8-1 with a 3.00 GAA and .912 save percentage.

Halverson is 4-1-0 in December with a 2.40 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. He has made at least 30 saves in 11 of his 19 starts in 2015-16.

Opilka (St. Louis Blues) is 17-3-2 with a 2.40 GAA and .918 save percentage in 22 games for Kitchener. Prior to getting sick, Opilka won four straight games.

Parsons, in his second OHL season, is 19-3-2 with a 2.46 GAA and .917 save percentage in 24 games for the Knights.

"He's strong and powerful and has quick leg drive and very quick reactions and recovery skills," NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen said of Parsons. "He battles very hard and has an excellent work ethic. I like his aggressiveness and he challenges very well. He also tracks pucks well through traffic."


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