USA's #19 Jack Drury fights for possession off the draw against Czech #18 Martin Necas. (December 22nd, 2018)

Story & Photos by Alex Rodgerson

With the 2019 World Juniors set to get underway in just a few days time the American national junior team wrapped up its pre-tournament schedule on Saturday night at the Langley Events Centre, dispatching of the Czech Republic by a final score of 6-2. Oliver Wahlstrom scored twice in the opening five minutes while Josh Norris, Sasha Chmelevski and Quinn Hughes would all record multi-point nights for Team USA.

Team USA’s powerplay would go 2/5 on the night, while goaltender Kyle Keyser turned aside nineteen shots for the win. His Czech counterparts Jakub Skarek and Jiri Patera would split the duties between the pipes for CZE, combining for thirty-eight saves on the night.

The Americans would get off to a hot start against the Czechs on Saturday night, owning the puck early and forcing several key turnovers in the attack zone. This would lead to USA jumping out to a 1-0 lead just fourty seconds in, as Boston College forward Oliver Wahlstrom would pounce on a loose puck and beat Czech goaltender Jakub Skarek.

Wahlstrom would not be done there either, as just minutes later the 207-pound forward would take a feed from Jack Hughes and step into a shot that would beat Skarek on only the second American shot of the night. Up 2-0 not even five minutes in, USA would continue their momentum by combining a high-tempo, high-possession style which would be led by USA captain and Vancouver Canucks’ prospect Quinn Hughes. Hughes would tally an assist on both of Oliver Wahlstrom’s opening goals, as the offensively gifted defenceman would put his high-level speed and skill on display early.

Team USA would not relent as the period would continue, building up an 18-2 advantage in shots while virtually nullifying the Czech attack. With just under three minutes left in the first USA would go up by three, as Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Phil Kemp would hammer a shot from the point that would beat Skarek through a maze of bodies. The period would come to an end with the Czech Republic looking for answers as the Americans would take a 3-0 lead into the dressing room.

Team USA would pick up right where they left off to start period two, as the Americans would spend the first two and a half minutes in the Czech zone and come close to extending their lead to four. Brandon Wheat Kings’ goalie Jiri Patera would take over between the pipes in the second period for the Czech Republic after Jakub Skarek would stop 21 of 24 shots he faced. The Czechs would continue to struggle to generate any offence to start the second, as the Americans’ aggressive dedicated five-man defensive style would thwart the Czech attack and hold them to only three shots nearing the midway point of the game.

However, at 9:27 of the second the Czech Republic would get on the board thanks to their first powerplay of the night. Up a skater, Boston Bruins’ prospect Jakub Lauko would fire a one-timer from the right circle that would beat fellow Bruins’ prospect Kyle Keyser on just the fifth shot of the game for the Czech Republic. Not long after the Czechs would cut into the USA lead, the physicality would begin to ramp up as both teams would be looking to make a statement ahead of the 2019 World Juniors tournament.

It wouldn’t take long for the Americans to restore their three goal lead however, as on a powerplay late in the period San Jose Sharks’ prospect Josh Norris would re-direct home a pass from Jason Robertson to make it 4-1 USA. The Americans would add another before the end of the period as Sasha Chmelevski would undress Jiri Patera with a deek to the backhand before putting his team ahead 5-1 heading into the final frame.

The third period would see the game explode into a heated affair. Czech forward Dalimil Mikyska would get the gate at 7:56 for a late-hit, sparking more animosity between the two international foes. Minutes later the gloves would come down as Quinn Hughes as Jakub Lauko would settle their differences in a spirited tussle, sending both players off with automatic misconducts. Hughes would get the extra two minutes for cross-checking, which would send the Czech powerplay back to work with a chance to cut into the American lead.

On the powerplay, Carolina Hurricanes’ prosect Martin Necas would take a feed just above the left circle and snap a high wristshot passed Keyser. Late in the game with the score 5-2 in favour of Team USA, Arizona Coyotes’ 2017 selection Ty Emberson would take a great pass from Josh Norris before going top shelf on Patera. The shorthanded marker by Emberson would restore the Americans four goal lead, as USA would go on to skate to a 6-2 final.

After falling in the semi-finals of last year’s World Junior championships on home soil, Team USA has arrived on the Canadian west coast looking more dangerous than ever. The Americans, coached by Mike Hastings, play an extremely up-tempo north/south style of game and are easily one of the fastest teams I’ve ever seen on ice. Led by their captain Quinn Hughes, the Americans’ greatest strength is there transition game.

Anytime the Czechs would attempt to enter the Americans zone either with possession or on an odd man rush, Team USA would have all three forwards absolutely flying back defensively to break down the attack. Once the puck would be turned over USA would use the very same mentality when transitioning onto offence, as the entire five man unit would rush up the ice together with great puck support. This is where Quinn Hughes would impress the most, as the great skater would create a turnover after turnover while nearly beating his own forwards up ice when transitioning.

For the Czechs, despite playing a much better game as the night wore on, will need to work on creating better opportunities while limiting turnovers in the offensive and defensive zone. Throughout the night and especially in the first fourty minutes, the Czechs would surrender far too many quality opportunities while letting the shots against pile up.

Team Czech Republic features a number of high-end prospects with NHL futures, so as long The Czechs can capitalize on their opportunities when given, they will no doubt escape the round robin. Possession of the puck will be key, as the Czechs will be competing as part of Group A in this year’s World Junior Championships along with high-powered Canada and Russia. Filip Zadina, a sixth overall pick of the Detroit Red Wings from earlier this year, would finish the night with one assist.

Following Saturday night’s win against the Czechs I spoke with Team USA forward Jack Hughes, a seventeen-year-old from the U.S. National Team Development Program who is currently projected to be selected #1 overall in the 2019 NHL draft.

Photo by Dave Reginek
Photo by Dave Reginek

Hughes finished with an assist on Oliver Wahlstrom’s 2-0 goal, and spoke about his team’s effort on Saturday night against the Czechs.

“It was good, to come out here in front of a good crowd and get the win” said Hughes. “It was good for us.”

Originally from Florida, Hughes would spend his minor hockey days north of the border as a member of the Toronto Malboros (Greater Toronto Hockey League) before being drafted eighth overall by the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.

Due to his commitment to the U.S. National Team Development Program, Hughes would elect not to join the Steelheads but instead stick with the USNTDP. In his first season in the USHL, Hughes would register fifty-four points in just twenty-seven games while keeping up the same torrid pace was part of the U.S. U-17 and U-18 clubs.

As part of last season’s U-17 World Hockey Challenge, Hughes would serve as captain and lead the American squad to a gold medal over Canada while putting up fifteen points in just six games.

The same season Hughes would make his way over to the U.S. U-18 team where he would see no drop off, leading the tournament in scoring while also being named the tournament MVP. Hughes then spoke about his day-to-day approach when it comes to improving as a player.

“I just come to the rink and try to work hard and have fun,” said Hughes. “I think that’s all you can do as a hockey player.”

When describing the game of Jack Hughes one would have to start with his skating. Much like his brother Quinn, Jack is an extremely gifted skater with hands as quick as his feet. When watching Hughes play, one of the very first things that stands out is how quickly he’s able to accelerate.

Several times during Saturday night’s game against the Czechs, Hughes would use his agility and tremendous hockey IQ to easily get himself out of danger, while always keeping possession for his team. Offensively he sees the game on an entire different level, as much like his brother he has the innate ability to read and breakdown plays all over the ice.

Photo by USA Hockey
Photo by USA Hockey

The 2019 World Juniors will mark the first time that Jack Hughes will have the chance to play alongside his older brother Quinn Hughes in international competition. Quinn was drafted seventh overall by Vancouver in the 2018 NHL draft, and plays a very similar style as his brother.

A year older than Jack, Quinn Hughes has played the last two seasons at the University of Michigan where he has totaled fourty-nine points in fifty-four games from the back end. Jack then spoke about his excitement to play alongside his brother in the upcoming World Juniors.

“It should be a lot of fun playing with Quinn,” said Hughes. “We don’t get to do it much but it should be a lot of fun, we always push each other to get better.”

In Team USA’s most previous pre-tournament game, the Americans were able to pull off a 3-2 victory over Russia in thanks to a goal by Jack Hughes with 28.3 seconds left in regulation. A noted game changer by NHL scouts, one of the Hughes’ top skills is his ability to elevate his game to another level in key moments and when the game is on the line.

A player with this ability is what you would call a generational talent, which is exactly what Jack Hughes could be. Hughes spoke about his ability to raise his game on a moments notice.

“I think a lot of really good players have that and it’s what makes them really good,” said the seventeen-year-old American forward. “I hope I have that in my game.”

With the World Juniors pre-tournament now in the books the tournament itself will be set to begin on Boxing Day, with the Americans taking on Slovakia in their opening game while the Czechs will play their opener against the Swiss.