One day after the preliminary 16-man roster was announced for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, three of the its young stars will be on display when the Buffalo Sabres host the Calgary Flames at First Niagara Center on Thursday night.
Jack Eichel will square off against the Flames' Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, all three of whom were selected on Wednesday to play for the North American team, comprised of the best players from the United States and Canada who are 23 years old and younger.
"It's a huge honor," Eichel said. "It's going to be an exciting time for the League, an exciting tournament so I'm happy to be a part of it."
The three players on the ice are a testament to the current youth movement in the NHL. Eichel, 19, ranks second on the Sabres with 41 points (17+24) while Gaudreau and Monahan rank first and second on the Flames with 63 (24+39) and 44 (20+24) points, respectively.
While they've faced off once this season – the Flames won 4-3 against the Sabres in Calgary on Dec. 10 – Eichel has more familiarity with Gaudreau, a fellow Massachusetts native and a graduate of Boston College, the rival of Eichel's alma mater Boston University.
"I know Johnny a little bit. We work out together in the summer sometimes," Eichel said. "He's a good player, a good kid. Obviously both are really great, young players in this League and they've been so successful early in their careers. It's great to see."
The trio will join young stars such as Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings and Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche in an effort to compete against the best players in the world.
Eichel, who has been involved with USA Hockey since his early teenage years, admitted it will be strange to play against Team USA rather than for it. As for how the young stars will fare against the best – and more established – players from around the world?
"I guess we'll see," Eichel said. "There are a lot of really good players, obviously the world's best in the tournament. Yeah, it's exciting. It should be a great event for our game."
One of those players sits across from him in the Sabres' dressing room. Rasmus Ristolainen, a young player in his own right at age 21, was selected to play for Team Finland earlier in the day on Wednesday. A third-year pro, Ristolainen has been impressed with how Eichel has carried himself this season.
"It's a big honor for him," Ristolainen said. "He played real well before he came here but probably had a lot of pressure and a lot of things to handle. I think he looks pretty calm and he's handled all those things well and he's playing really good hockey."
REINHART FOCUSED ON FINISHING STRONG
With a team-high 18 goals, a case could be made for Sam Reinhart to join Eichel on the North American when the full 23-man roster is announced, which must be done not later than June 1, 2016. While he said it would be an honor, Reinhart's sole focus now is helping the team finish strong in its last 18 games.
The Sabres are 1-2-1 with just four goals in their past four games. They'll have a chance to break their scoring drought against a Flames team that has allowed 196 goals this season, the third most in the League, and is winless in their last six games and 1-8-1 in their last 10.
"We feel when we're at our best we can compete with anybody," Reinhart said. "They're a team with a lot of skill and a lot of pace so we're going to try keeping the puck out of the top guys' hands tonight."
Getting back on the board begins with reigniting the power play for the Sabres, who are scoreless in their last eight attempts. The Flames' penalty kill is successful at just a 72.8 percent clip, the worst in the League. Despite its recent struggles, Buffalo's power play still ranks 11th at 19.5 percent.
"I think when we were at our best on the power play, our entries and set-up was around the 70-percent mark, which is a pretty good mark," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "Right now we're significantly off that mark in terms of breaking in and gaining possession and setting up.
"If you watch the power play now, in general, you feel like you're looking at 20 seconds and 30 seconds of zone time versus winning the draw and having two minutes of zone time or a full minute of zone time or getting an entry or getting set up and having a significant time in zone."
McCABE IN, FRANSON OUT
After practicing with the team on Wednesday, defenseman Jake McCabe is set to play against the Flames. McCabe left the Sabres' 2-1 overtime loss to the Oilers on Tuesday in the final minutes of the third period after delivering a hard hit to Nail Yakupov.
Fellow defenseman Cody Franson, meanwhile, will miss his sixth game with a neck injury.
"I would say that it has kind of gone the wrong way for him," Bylsma said. "When he skated in Anaheim [on Feb. 23] ,he felt real close to being ready to go, come back to play or returning to health. Right now, it's just not the case for him."
Robin Lehner, coming off a 39-save performance against the Oilers, will start in net for the Sabres and oppose Jonas Hiller. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Sportsnet 360. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 19 Cal O'Reilly – 28 Zemgus Girgensons
43 Daniel Catenacci – 17 David Legwand – Matt Moulson
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 3 Mark Pysyk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson