Hlinka horror show- USA smoked by Finland in U18 action

So, I got back from the mini-vacation in time to watch (online) the Team USA Under-18 selects squad get smoked by Finland today in their first game of the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. The final score was 5-1, but it could have been far worse.

This game was over after 20 minutes, as the Finns took advantage of sloppy, undisciplined play by the Americans and a poor performance in net from Niagara Ice Dogs goalie Stephen Dhillon. Dhillon, a dual citizen from Fort Erie, Ontario (his hometown is listed as Buffalo, N.Y.) has excellent size and athletic ability, but it wasn’t his day. Granted, he didn’t get much help from a team that took a series of undisciplined penalties (William Knierim’s slashing call to give Finland a 4-0 lead in the first period was the worst of them), but after being beaten on a deflection to open the scoring, he was fighting the puck and just couldn’t get his game on track. He was on the bench to start the second period, giving way to Dayton Rasmussen. All in all- a forgettable 20 minutes for Dhillon.

This is a talented Team USA squad, so we should have seen a much better performance from them than we did. Riley Tufte is a gi-normous forward at 6-foot-5 with some skill and is currently projected inside Red Line Report’s top-30 entering the season. He couldn’t get much going. Saw flashes of speed and offense from small but plucky New Yorker Christopher Berger. I liked what I saw at times from Massachusetts fave John Leonard, but there wasn’t a whole lot of positives to draw from. Patrick Harper, the other New Englander- a Boston University recruit and Avon Old Farms prep product- had a quiet gam as well.  He’s under 5-10 and speedy, but  the Finns did a nice job of slowing the USA offense through the neutral zone, and Harper never really got untracked.

USA’s lone goal happened when OHL (Sault Ste Marie) forward by way of Ohio forward Timmy Gettinger went to the net and perfectly redirected Ben Lown’s cross-ice feed past netminder Severi Isokangas (who made all the stops he had to, including a nice break in by Leonard during the 1st that could have gotten the Americans back in it).

Give full credit to the Finns- all they did was put the puck on net early and good things happened. The Robin Salo (late ’98- eligible for 2017 NHL draft) point blast to make it 3-0 was an absolute bomb that scorched in under the crossbar and sent the water bottle flying. They capitalized on the extra time and space the USA penalties gave them, and nobody could seem to get things going. Otto Makinen earned player of the game honors and showed off a fine release, while defenseman Markus Niemelainen played with poise- he’s a fluid skater who kept things simple.

Team USA takes on Russia tomorrow. The Hlinka tourney is pretty much an annual showcase of Canada’s  major junior power, as they take the best draft eligibles (or younger) from around the CHL- they basically ice the team they wish they could send to the April Under-18 championship, when many of their top talents are committed to the playoffs in their respective CHL leagues. If you want to know who the bulk of the first-round picks coming out of the OHL, QMJHL or WHL are- just pay attention to this tournament and you’ll get a nice preview of what is in store for the 2016 NHL draft before the 2015-16 major junior season kicks off.

The Americans, who send their best players from the U18 squad of the NTDP to the spring championship tourney, have won every U18 gold medal save one since 2009 (Canada prevented USA’s drive for five in a row in 2013), but in the Ivan Hlinka, the U.S. sends a select team chosen from the annual Select 17 USA Festival. They’ve won the silver medal a few times over the past few years going back to 2011, but no one can ever get past that Canadian juggernaut.

I don’t think 2015 will be any different.

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