Oilers forward prospect Tyler Benson wrapped up Game 2 of the 14th annual Canada-Russia Series with a three-point night (1G, 2A) to earn WHL Player of the Game and contribute to Team WHL's 4-1 victory over Team Russia.
"I felt good, felt like our line was going pretty good. We had some chemistry and were creating chances offensively" said Benson, who was on a line with - Oilers 2015 rookie camp invite - Tyler Soy (Victoria Royals) and Austin Wagner (Regina Pats).
Benson, a winger for the WHL's Vancouver Giants, set up Kale Clague of the Brandon Wheat Kings, for the game's first goal midway through the second period.
"I just got the puck and was going wide and just kept skating around the net and I saw Claguer coming off the bench, so I just gave it to him and it was a nice shot by him," said Benson.
He followed up with another assist on Wagner's 3-1 insurance goal in the third and capped off the night with an empty-netter off a pass from teammate Nick Merkley (Kelowna Rockets).
"[Benson]'s played really well," said Team WHL's Head Coach Tim Hunter. "He's a good hockey player, he missed a lot of hockey last year and it's good to see him playing his game now."
It was a feisty affair that played out at Rogers Place, with both teams doing what they had to, to get the job done. Team WHL carries an all-time record of 18-6-2 against Russia in the series that dates back to 2003. They swept the two-game set last year for the first time since 2009.
With the win, the CHL takes a 4-2 series lead in points heading into Game 3.
"It was a great game for about 40 minutes and then we started to pour it on and we got some goals and took control of the game from there," said Hunter. "I thought [Carter Hart] played well when he had to and timely scoring was a big part of it."
Team WHL, who looked to kick off the Canada-Russia Series on a high note, was downed by Team Russia in a 3-2 overtime decision Monday night in Prince George, BC.
Russian centreman Denis Alexeev - who earned Russia an early 2-1 series lead in points - scored 55 seconds into overtime, giving Russia the first overtime victory in the Series history.
"It was a good game - it was a fast paced game," said Benson. "Both teams had lots of chances, tough one [to lose] in overtime but we played well."
But there is more than meets the eye with the annual series that pits a select team of Russian junior players and All-Star Teams representing all three Canadian Hockey Leagues against one another.
The six-game exhibition tournament operates as an evaluation tool for Hockey Canada in the lead-up to the annual IIHF U-20 World Junior Hockey Championship in December.
Though Team Canada is sure to have a few players returning from last year's squad, there are still a number of roster spots up for grabs and Benson is aiming to nab one of them.
"That would be special," he said. "That's something I've dreamed of before so if I was able to get that opportunity would be very special. It's going to be tough, there's a lot of good players in Canada."
Benson, the Oilers 32nd-overall selection from the 2016 NHL Draft, was unable to attend the 2016-17 National Junior Team Summer Camp - which included 39 players from across the CHL - due to injuries he was working to overcome in the off-season.
"I think I'm starting to get my game back," said Benson. "It was a tough start again to this year with a shoulder injury, but I think the past few weeks I've been starting to get my legs back, starting to get chemistry with my own team, and I think I'm starting to play well now."
Last season, Benson was limited to just 30 games with the Giants due to the injuries he had sustained and had to work to overcome.
This year, the left-winger appears to be making up for lost time. In 14 games, the Edmonton native is averaging more than a point per game, recording eight goals and nine assists for 17 points.
"I just want to play my game," said the 18-year-old. "I want to try and show myself well and be able to get a chance to go there."
A roster full of players trying to make a case for themselves, the Canada-Russia Series serves as a stage that will give Benson and the 68 other CHL Team Canada hopefuls a space to showcase why it is they deserve an invite to the December camp.
"It's tough," admitted Benson. "These games, you have to build chemistry quick and try and build chemistry with your linemates fast, so they're tough games but you just have to do what you can.
"You're going to want to have a good showing for sure - all the brass are here… But they'll probably still be watching games [after the series], so you've got to make sure you're still playing hard."
Hockey Canada, who has continued to monitor the players and potential candidates throughout the first few months of their 2016-17 seasons will also use the Canada-Russia Series to determine who will receive final invites to Canada's National Junior Team selection camp in December.
Hunter, who will also serve as an assistant coach with the Canadian National Junior Team this December, understands the pressure these prospects are under and believes there is a level of difficulty in being able to make a proper evaluation after each CHL team plays only two games out of the series.
"It's really hard," he said. "There are some guys that played a little bit better than other guys, but I think as a whole group everyone played really well."
In total, 22 players will be selected to represent Canada at the 2017 World Juniors when it returns to Canadian ice December 26, 2016 to January 5, 2017 in Montreal and Toronto.
As Benson prepares to return to his season with the Giants, the prospect is embracing both the opportunity he was given to showcase what he is capable of in International play and being able to do so in front of his hometown.
"It was exciting," he said. "Every time I come back to Edmonton I'm always pretty happy, pretty excited to play here. I was pretty happy and it was a great experience."
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