The World Junior Hockey Championships continues to roll along, and yesterday featured a great slate of games. Three Flames prospects were in action Sunday. Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier played on the same line for Canada, and played well for the team as they beat Slovakia 3-1. In the late game, Yan Kuznetsov skated for the Russians in their 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Czech Republic
Both teams provided disappointing efforts. For Team Canada, the game was much closer than it should have been, and they never seemed to get their offensive game going. The team lacks an identity, especially offensively, and they will need to find a way to produce more chances up front.
For the Russians, the loss was a tough setback after beating the Americans on Christmas Day. The Czech team perfectly executed their game plan, which was to play super defensively, and pack as many bodies in front of the net as possible. The Russians were content to keep launching shots from outside the circles, and the Czech’s valiantly blocked shot after shot. The Czech team capitalized on two Russian mistakes to score their two goals, one on a slick two on one, and the other on a breakaway. The counter attack strategy worked perfectly.
Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier
Zary and Pelletier played together on Sunday, flanking Quinton Byfield on a new look third line. The trio was arguably the most effective Canadian line, and spent a lot of time in the offensive zone. While they did not get rewarded for their efforts on the score sheet, they were noticeable all night, and look to remain a line going forward.
Zary finished the night with only 12:45 of ice time, which was partially due to not being on either special teams unit. He deserved more time than he got, and when he was out there he made a number of smart little passes with the puck. He actually reminded me of future teammate Matthew Tkachuk, for his ability to control the puck in the corners and not get knocked off. Combined with his ability to make those little passes, Zary was effective in the offensive zone.
Pelletier played on the penalty kill unit, which pushed his ice time to 14:52. He also had two shots on goal, and was effective at five on five and while shorthanded. He uses his quickness to cover opposing players while on defence, taking away their time and space and using his stick well. He did that a few times on the penalty kill, and it helped to break up the play and end the opportunity for the Slovaks.
Both players flashed the ability to take the puck away. Pelletier used his speed, and Zary made a number of slick stick lifts to create takeaways, which was part of the reason why they spent so much time in the fun zone.
Byfield was nothing special in this game, but the two Calgary prospects were enough to carry the line. The trio might be in line for some more minutes in the coming games, especially considering the pedestrian results for the supposed top two Canadian lines. After last night, the Calgary boys deserve it.
Kuznetsov’s game on Sunday was a bit of a roller coaster. He got out to a rough start when his shot got blocked and he tripped while chasing the Czech forward, leading to a partial breakaway. He settled in well after that, and had the puck on his stick a lot in the neutral and offensive zones throughout the second and third period. He was on the ice for the second Czech goal, but had no impact on the play as his teammate had his shot blocked, leading to a breakaway goal for the Czechs.
One thing was clear in this game however: Kuznetsov loves to shoot the puck, and he can really sling it. Much like the rest of the Russian team, Kuznetsov let it loose on several one timer attempts. He ended the game officially with three shots, though he had many more that missed the net or were blocked. It wasn’t a great strategy for the team as a whole, but from a Flames perspective, it was great to see a guy who was able and willing to shoot. Hopefully he gets rewarded later in the tournament.
One final thing I noticed were Kuznetsov’s breakout passes were just ok. The Czech team did everything they possibly could to plug up the neutral zone, and all the Russian players struggled to advance the puck. But Kuznetsov looked frequently for longer stretch passes rather than use his skating and keep it simple. For a big guy he can really move, and relying on stretch passes less would be a good step forward.
Overall, he bounced back pretty well from a rough start, and played a solid game for the Russians.
No Flames prospects are in action today, as the United States, Canada, and Russia all have the day off. All three countries are in action Tuesday, so stay tuned to TWC for reactions on every game by a Flames prospect, all tournament long.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada Images