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Ryan O'Reilly lined up at center ice to take one last faceoff in Moscow, Russia on Sunday. He and Team Canada had just extended their lead to 2-0 over Finland with an empty-net goal in the Gold Medal Game, and only one second remained on the clock. This last draw was merely a formality.
Once that second ticked off the clock, O'Reilly, for the second year in a row, was a gold medalist at the IIHF World Championship.
"It's an amazing feeling," O'Reilly said on Tuesday. "To win two years in a row is pretty special and it's different because we had almost a completely different group of guys. I think there were three of us that were there the previous year. But it's a great tournament, it was really tough."
Indeed, O'Reilly was one of three players – along with Edmonton's Taylor Hall and former Colorado Avalanche teammate Matt Duchene – to return from the 2015 team. For O'Reilly, it was the fourth go-around at the World Championship.
It's amazing how quickly things can turn. In a matter of a year, O'Reilly went from feeling like he was one of "the young guys" to being a veteran on a roster loaded with young superstars. He was named an alternate captain prior to the tournament, the same role he serves for the Buffalo Sabres.
"I think every year you have to just kind of grow yourself," he said. "This year in Buffalo, I definitely found and started to grow as a leader more vocally and doing certain other things. It was kind of good having that experience and going into this situation knowing it was going to be like that."
The young guys this time around included some of the top young talent in the world, both on Team Canada and across the tournament's rosters. For Canada, O'Reilly played with Calder Trophy finalist Connor McDavid. His opponents included Auston Matthews of the U.S. and Patrik Laine of Finland, who are rated No. 1 and 2 respectively as the top European-based skaters in the 2016 NHL Draft by Central Scouting.
That goes without mentioning Sam Reinhart, a first-timer at the World Championship after scoring 42 points (23+19) in his rookie season for the Sabres. Reinhart earned more ice time as the tournament progressed after beginning in a limited role, finishing with four assists in 10 games.
"I think he had a great tournament," O'Reilly said. "I think at first he was kind of put on one of the bottom lines, kind of didn’t see much ice, but he stuck with it. Every time he stepped up where he hadn’t played in a while, he did all the right things."
It's hard to think of a more appropriate pair of Sabres to have begun their summer together than O'Reilly and Reinhart, who became known for working together after practices during the season. Reinhart credited those sessions for the vast improvement he displayed from September to March.
Playing together in Russia over the past month served as an opportunity for the pair to continue to put work in.
"Oh, absolutely," O'Reilly said. "He's such a hard-working guy that we constantly push each other and do stuff together. He's always there. He's always trying to get better and he is. From the start of the year from where I've seen him to now, he's grown his game. It's tough to do and he's done it dramatically."
O'Reilly also got to play against a pair of teammates in Jake McCabe and Hudson Fasching of Team USA. They faced off twice, once to open the tournament and again in the semifinal. McCabe – named one of Team USA's top three players of the tournament – matched up against O'Reilly on multiple occasions.
"He gave me a pretty good slash the one game so I wasn’t too happy about that," O'Reilly said, laughing. "I thought he played really well. He was one of their best D, but that's Jake. Jake does everything well. He's tough to play against, he's physical, he can make good plays. He just reads the game well. It was nice to see him have success there and he's quite the player for sure."
As for O'Reilly himself, he said at the end of the season that he'd go into Worlds hoping a strong performance could go a long way toward earning one of the seven remaining spots on Canada's roster for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, which must be finalized by Friday. He certainly couldn't have hurt his chances with his offense – he recorded eight points (2+6) in 10 games.
If he does get selected to represent Canada in September, however, it will be for more than his scoring ability. O'Reilly played the same role at the World Championship as he did for the Sabres, which is to say he was available in virtually every situation. He played the power play and the penalty kill, excelled in the two-way game and was relied upon for major faceoffs.
When Canada was pinned in its own zone and nursing a 1-0 lead with eight seconds to play in the Gold Medal Game, it was O'Reilly who was called upon to take the draw.
Most importantly, it was all done in a winning effort, meaning O'Reilly – never one to compliment himself in the wake of defeat – was able to offer a positive assessment.
"I thought it was good," he said. "I felt I had a big role. I got to play on the power play, both that and penalty kill which is obviously big. I felt I took a lot of important faceoffs which I like. I felt it was good.
"Obviously any time you win, you're going to enjoy it. I was really happy with the end result."