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U.S. tops Finland in shootout to win WJC opener

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- Jack Eichel knew the spotlight would be glaring.

As a top-two prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft, one wearing the captain's "C" on his United States jersey at the IIHF 2015 World Junior Championships, the eyes of the world are going to be picking apart everything Eichel does during this high-profile tournament.

On opening day, Eichel not only gave them no reason to look away, he justified all the attention with a masterful performance to help lead the U.S. to a tournament-opening 2-1 shootout win against defending champion Finland on Friday.

Playing a few hours before his biggest draft rival, Canada's Connor McDavid, was to step on the same Bell Centre ice, Eichel had a highlight-reel assist in regulation, scored in the shootout and was generally dominant against Finland, making one wonder what he might do for an encore.

"I thought Jack, for a little bit there, he was showing a little bit of frustration and trying to do a little bit too much, but then I thought they settled down and played well," U.S. coach Mark Osiecki said. "The best thing that happened, and I said this earlier to a couple of the guys, the leadership really came out. A guy like J.T. Compher, who's not wearing a letter on his sweater, did a great job on the bench. Jack takes charge, says the right things. In the heat of the moment I felt those guys did well."

Eichel and linemate Chase de Leo (Winnipeg Jets) each scored in the shootout, and goaltender Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) stopped the final two Finland shooters to secure the victory for the United States.

A back-and-forth overtime period came to a dramatic finish, with U.S. defenseman Will Butcher (Colorado Avalanche) sliding to block a shot by Finland forward Juuso Ikonen with an empty net behind him, though it appeared as though the shot came after the final buzzer. Butcher was named the United States' player of the game.

"We battled hard from start to finish," Eichel said. "We knew it was going to be a tough game. They're the defending champions. You have to give them credit. They played a really close-checking game. I mean it's really good for us to get the win. Hopefully we can build off it and get some confidence."

Eichel put his mark on the tournament early on with an incredible assist on a power-play goal by Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild) at 13:54 of the first period. Eichel corralled a puck behind the Finland net and, with defenseman Julius Honka (Dallas Stars) bearing down on him, passed behind his back, off the end boards to himself, then gathered the puck and sent it out front to Tuch for a one-timer to tie the game 1-1.

It was just one example of Eichel's dominant performance in the game, tilting the ice in the United States' favor on nearly every shift and dictating the pace of play. Eichel and Tuch tied for the game high with five shots on goal apiece.

"He's unbelievable," 2016 NHL Draft prospect Auston Matthews, who made his WJC debut for the U.S., said of Eichel. "He does everything: great skater, great stickhandler and a great leader off the ice. It's really fun watching him play."

Honka was a similar force for Finland, logging massive minutes and providing a steadying force on the blue line. He was often matched against Eichel's line with Tuch and de Leo, and even got into a scuffle with Eichel in the third period, drawing coincidental roughing minors.

"We know we have a good team and we can battle with the big countries here," Honka said. "If we play like that and we can keep going and get better, good things happen."

Finland coach Hannu Jortikka decided to start backup goaltender Ville Husso (St. Louis Blues) instead of incumbent starter Juuse Saros (Nashville Predators) who led Finland to gold at the WJC last year. Husso rewarded his coach's trust with an outstanding performance, keeping Finland in the game by withstanding a U.S. onslaught in the first 30 minutes and finishing with 36 saves.

"This year, I want to be the first goalie," Husso said. "This is a new championship, and I'm lucky that I get a new chance."

Demko was solid for the United States; he made 28 saves, most of them in the second half of the game when Finland began to find its legs and carry longer stretches of play.

"When you're not getting a lot of action you can't just go into a lull, especially knowing Finland," Demko said. "You know they're going to fight back. You just have to be ready for when that happens, and I thought we handled that pretty well."

The game could not have gotten off to a worse start for the United States, nor for Matthews.

Finland had the puck behind the U.S. net when Mikko Rantanen attempted a pass out to the slot. Matthews, stationed to the left of Demko, attempted to block the pass but instead kicked the puck into his own net, giving Finland a 1-0 lead at 1:22 of the first period.

It was indicative of a nervous start for the United States, with a number of careless turnovers in its own end and choppy play in general. But once the U.S. got what appeared to be some jitters out of its game, it began to dominate long stretches of play. Finland was hanging on for much of the first half of the game to keep the score tied 1-1.

"There was a bit of jitters, especially having a young team with only six returning players," Tuch said. "The Finns have about 14 returning players, so they were ready to go.

"I think we outplayed them the rest of the game."

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