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U.S. faces tough choice in selecting starting goalie

by Mike G. Morreale

BOSTON -- What happens when three friends also happen to be in competition for the right to earn the primary role as starting goaltender for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship?

It comes down to survival of the fittest and the best, quite honestly, during USA Hockey's four-day selection camp at Walter Brown Arena on the campus of Boston University.

The three goalies, all 2014 NHL Draft picks, are Boston College sophomore Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks, No. 36), Alex Nedeljkovic (Carolina Hurricanes, No. 37) of the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League and Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers, No. 59) of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL.

"The other two guys are fantastic goalies," Demko said. "I know that if I don't show up ready for a practice they'll be stopping the pucks. It just keeps you on your toes and pushes you."

The decision won't come easy for USA Hockey's managerial team but will be an important one.

"I think body of work is a big part of goaltending and all three have had ups and downs this season," USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson said. "I think there's a long track record with Alex and Thatcher, internationally, and Brandon hasn't had the opportunity but he's had a great start to the season; he's a real athletic guy. I think all three bring unique talents to it. I think it's twofold; the body of work and camp performance will matter."

On the way to winning a gold medal at the 2010 WJC in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the Americans ranked second at the event with a .914 save percentage. The country finished first in both goals-against average (1.29) and save percentage (.956) at the 2013 WJC on the way to winning gold in Russia.

Johannson did say all three goalies would likely survive the first round of cuts following the exhibition game against Boston University on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

"We'll take all three goalies [to Kingston, Ontario] to continue the evaluation process, but we have not determined yet if all three will be on the final roster," Johannson said. "Whether we take two or three will be based on the comfort level of the coaches, the camp and the three exhibition games. We're actually comfortable both ways, but I think a lot of it will have to do with the gut feeling from the coaches in how they will use guys."

Johannson will announce his final roster on Dec. 24 after the United States concludes its pre-tournament exhibition schedule against Germany on Dec. 21 and Sweden on Dec. 23. After the exhibition games, the U.S. will open the 11-day tournament on Dec. 26 with a Group A game against defending champion Finland at Bell Centre in Montreal at 3 p.m.

Demko is the only returning player of the group, but the 6-foot-3, 192-pound left-hander did not see any action for the fifth-place Americans at the 2014 WJC in Sweden.

"Each of us will probably get an opportunity to play an exhibition game, so really it's just every man for himself," Demko said.

Nedeljkovic was named one of the three best players at the World Under-18 Championship in Finland last April after winning five games and finishing with a 1.84 GAA and .902 save percentage in a gold medal-winning effort for the United States.

"That was good experience, but it's a lot different now since guys are a year older and there's a lot more skill out there at this camp than there was at the U-18's," Nedeljkovic said. "The coaches haven't said anything yet, so all three of us are going in with the mindset that a job is there for the taking. The goalies playing the best throughout the week are the ones who will likely stay."

Demko might have the early advantage at this stage considering he accompanied the team to the WJC last year.

"These are three capable goalies and they're going to go in the net and show us what they can do; I don't think you ever want to just hand somebody that opportunity," U.S. coach Mark Osiecki said. "With Demko coming back and playing so consistently good right now, he will push the level of play of the other two."

Thatcher Demko is making a strong case to be the starting goalie for the USA at the 2015 WJC. (Photo: Jon Quackenbos)

In his second season at Boston College, Demko is 9-6-1 with a 2.12 GAA and .927 save percentage at the break.

"I feel more comfortable out there this time around [at WJC camp]," Demko said. "I know what to expect and I've been around these guys for a while, so there's a little bit of comfort around them; it just feels better. It's not an easy tournament to be a part of since everything happens pretty quickly. I learned that you must take care of your body in that short time because that's a huge factor."

Even though he didn't play in the tournament last year, Demko still would relish the opportunity to redeem his country.

"I didn't play last year but I have a tremendous amount of pride for the U.S., so the way the tournament ended isn't the way we wanted it to end," he said. "Coaches have mentioned how quick things can turn around, so when you go out there make sure it doesn't happen again."

Halverson has never been granted an opportunity to wear the USA sweater in an international event.

"I just need to come out and be the best I can be," Halverson said. "Demko went as the third goalie last year and Nedeljkovic was with the U-18's. I never really had the opportunity to wear the jersey or be in any tournament like that, so I'm coming in as kind of the underdog and I guess that's the best thing for me. All I have to do is work the hardest I can, prove myself and try to earn a spot."

The 18-year-old is 9-0-2 with a 2.08 GAA and .929 save percentage for the Greyhounds in the past 11 games. That, and the fact Halverson is so adept at handling the puck, is what caught the eye of the managerial team. He ranks third in the OHL in wins (16) and ranks eighth in saves (620).

Nedeljkovic (9-14-3), now in his third season with the Whalers, ranks third in saves (829) in the OHL.

"This is an extreme honor to be able to wear the USA sweater at this tournament," Nedeljkovic said. "The only higher level you can wear your country's colors is during the Olympics, so be able to do it at this level in front of millions of people, especially in Canada, would be a great honor."


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