Play began Saturday at the 2014 U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp (NJEC) with a split-squad scrimmage between Team USA White and Team USA Blue. With the teams playing 25-minute halves, Team Blue rode a dominating four-goal opening stanza to a 5-2 victory over their White foes.
The camp is part of the process to select the U.S. National Junior Team that will compete at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, which begins December 26 in Montreal and Toronto.
Buffalo Sabres prospect Hudson Fasching (2013, fourth round - LAK) scored one of the two White goals, while J.T. Compher (2013, second round) notched an assist in defeat. Cornell defender Clint Lewis notched the other White tally, while Sonny Milano (CBJ), Tyler Motte (CHI), John Hayden (CHI), Louie Belpedio (MIN) and Alex Tuch (MIN) lit the lamp for Team Blue.
With Team Blue looking like they’ve been playing together for a few months, it took White a little longer to get going. Blue took a 4-0 lead into the break, but the tide shifted and the physical play escalated when play resumed.
Compher, who centered Team White’s top line between Fasching and 2015 draft prospect Kyle Connor, was arguably his side’s top player all the way through. He used his feet to take away time and space, and drew the ire of Team Blue with a hit in the corner right at the halftime horn. In the second half, the reigning B1G Freshman of the Year made a smart zone entry and executed a give-and-go with Will Butcher (COL) before finding Fasching at the doorstep for White’s second marker.
Fasching was his usual self for most of the game, using his size in the corners and in front of the net. Just like he showed at the Sabres’ recent development camp, his strong skating drives a powerful work ethic. Both he and Compher are expected to be key components when the final tournament roster is announced in December.
Connor Hurley (2013, second round) played left wing on a White checking line with the Portland Winterhawks tandem of Dominic Turgeon (DET) and Keegan Iverson (NYR). Hurley displayed his stickhandling skill when given room to wheel, and just missed connecting on an excellent centering feed from the corner late in the game. With his team gaining momentum in the second half, Hurley was whistled for a penalty after tripping up fellow Sabres prospect Sean Malone (2013, sixth round).
If there was one Sabres prospect that stood out in the second half, it was Malone. The West Seneca, NY product centered Team Blue’s fourth forward unit between Andres Bjork (BOS) and Vinni Lettieri for the entire game, using his speed to find space in the offensive zone and earning a reward with power play time after drawing the Hurley penalty. It was only one scrimmage, but Malone could give the American staff confidence in his ability as a quality role player if he continues to grind out tough shifts through the duration of camp.
Providence College defenseman Anthony Florentino (2013, fifth round) was partnered with Miami commit Louie Belpedio (MIN) on Team Blue’s third defensive pair, and also saw some time at the right point on the power play. Whether or not he makes it past the cutdown, the camp experience with the top players in his peer group should make him a more effective player when the Hockey East schedule kicks off in October.
NJEC action continued Sunday, starting with Team USA White taking on Jonas Johansson (2014, third round), Victor Olofsson (2014, seventh round) and Team Sweden. Johansson proved to be the difference maker with a 35-save performance to lead the Swedes to a 4-3 victory.
Anton Karlsson (ARZ) scored twice to pace the Swedes, while Axel Holmstrom (DET) and Lucas Wallmark (CAR) added single markers for the winners. Auston Matthews, a 6-foot-1, 202-pound forward who isn’t draft eligible until 2016, scored twice for Team USA Blue. Anthony Louis (CHI) also scored for the Americans.
Compher moved to the right wing on a line with Matthews and Connor, while Fasching remained at his wing position with Nick Schmaltz (CHI) and Anthony Louis (CHI).
Compher was a key cog at both ends of the rink all game long, applying pressure without the puck while showing his playmaking eyes en route to picking up two assists on the day. He worked hard behind the net for his first assist, and kicked back to the point for a secondary helper on the third White goal. The University of Michigan standout rounded out his effort with some excellent work at the left point on the power play. He nearly added a goal to his weekend resume with a shot that just missed high over the crossbar in the final minutes.
Fasching again showed his downhill mentality and net-front presence, especially with the man advantage. He plays a simple yet effective game based on two-way checking style and creating traffic in front of the opposing goalie. Play was stopped twice as a result of him entering Johansson’s crease, which served as a testament to his ability to add jam down low.
Johansson was rock solid between the pipes for Sweden, tracking the puck through traffic and leveraging his wide frame to take away much of the net from the American shooters. The big Swede held his ground in the face of down low pressure, and showed his athleticism when travelling side-to-side. When the Americans realized that they needed to aim at the high corners, the big-bodied goalie snatched pucks with a quick glove hand. Two of the three goals against came with USA White on the power play.
Going without a point while skating on a checking line, Olofsson made a few nifty plays down low in the offensive zone and proved himself as a smart defensive player. Perhaps his most noteworthy play came when he used his stick to tie up Ryan MacInnis (ARZ), who accepted a pass right in front of Johansson for a quality chance.
In Sunday’s nightcap, Team USA Blue scored two goals in the final five minutes of regulation to defeat Finland 2-1.
Hurley, who played the previous night down the wing for USA White, switched back to his natural center position for Team Blue between Bjork and Austin Poganski. The Notre Dame commit did his part in creating chances for his wingers but the trio was unable to beat a razor sharp Juuse Saros. As a whole, Hurley looked comfortable down the middle, and it showed with some nice work on the backcheck.
Malone’s strong showing in Saturday’s scrimmage was rewarded with a spot on Team Blue’s second offensive unit. Centering Hayden and Taylor Cammarata (NYI), Malone again proved himself as a tenacious, tireless worker who created offense by keeping his feet motoring. He also displayed his proficiency in the faceoff circle with some key wins late in the third period.
Florentino remained alongside Belpedio on USA Blue’s third defensive unit. The sophomore defenseman played a steady all-around game, showing high level awareness defensively and making crisp passes up ice. He continued to get the nod on USA Blue’s top power play unit, but like Malone and Fasching, was unable to get on the scoresheet.
The NJEC continues Monday with USA Blue taking on Sweden at 1 p.m. ET, followed by USA White versus Finland at 4 p.m. ET.