UFA, RUSSIA — Scoring five points against Germany might not have been that heroic for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but that didn’t stop him from wearing a satiny black cape in his post-game press conference.
The 19-year-old star of the Edmonton Oilers was reticent about having to wear the Superman accessory – emblazoned with a red-and-white shield on the back with Team Canada’s motto “The Reason” and the Hockey Canada emblem.
“It’s something that the coaches are going to give out at each game to one player and it’s an honour to be the first to get it,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
“I don’t know if I have to go out for dinner with it or not, we’ll see.”
The idea was the brainchild of head coach Steve Spott, who decided to change up the traditional hat – hard hat, cowboy hat, etc. – in exchange for the cape.
“We think the cape is something unique,” said Spott. “And it embarrasses them a little bit when they have to come out here and face you guys (in the media) …It’s extra motivation because they need to laugh, these are teenage kids and we forget that sometimes.”
On the ice, even before the cape, Nugent-Hopkins looked like an on-ice Superman, dominating the play with linemates Mark Scheifele and Jonathan Huberdeau. Together the troika – all first-round NHL picks – combined for 10 points against the overwhelmed Germans in a 9-3 victory. The super-line was even more so when you consider that Scheifele – a natural centre – has been shifted over to right wing and that together they’ve only played in practice and one real exhibition game.
“It definitely takes a couple of games to get used to your linemates and get your chemistry,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “But I thought tonight we were working well together and I just felt like we knew where each other was (on the ice). It’s definitely a positive thing when you can do it that early (in the tournament).”
The opening game of the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship between Canada and Germany played out as expected. The Germans showed some spunk – with goals by Kitchener Rangers forward Tobias Rieder, Sarnia Sting forward Nick Latta and Leonhard Pfoderl – but it was a full-blown rout, and exactly what Canada needed. After having difficulty generating offense in pre-tournament play, Team Canada broke out with eight different goal-scorers against Germany.
“There’s definitely a confidence because we haven’t buried a lot of goals in the pre-tournament or even the Subway Super Series,” said Scheifele of the offensive boost. “So it’s good that we were able to bury a few. We definitely have a lot of scoring power and I think we just have to keep it going.”
Germany is making its return to the top tier of the under-20 tournament after winning Division I last year, and its main goal at the tournament is to avoid relegation.
“We kind of knew it was going to be a game like that,” said Rieder. “But you don’t play Canada every day so it was pretty special.”
Rieder plays for Spott in Kitchener, so he said being able to score against his coach on the world stage was special, even if he was on the losing end. Reider also said he had yet to speak to Rangers teammate and Canadian defenceman Ryan Murphy, though he already knew what he was going to say about the blowout.
“Well,” said the German forward with a smile. “I’ll just say he was lucky.”
It’s hard to imagine Canada relying on luck with the likes of Nugent-Hopkins, Sheifele and Huberdeau powering the top line.
When asked the last time he had played on a line with that much talent, Huberdeau, who won a Memorial Cup and three President’s Cup Trophies with the Saint John Sea Dogs, couldn’t come up with a comparison.
“I don’t know, it’s been a while,” said the No. 3 overall draft pick of the Florida Panthers in 2011. “But they’re not that great, I mean we give them a lot of credit – no I’m just kidding, no they’re good. They’re so easy to play with…we’ve got good chemistry, we’ve just got to keep going against Slovakia.”
Canada has an off day on Thursday and faces the Slovaks on Friday. Russia, hosting the tournament for the first time since 2001, opened the tournament against Slovakia a few hours after Canada had skated to victory. Even though the Canadians played Germany, there were still a handful of Russian reporters on hand. Their questions were exclusively about how Canada will fare against Russia on Dec. 31 and the prowess of Nail Yakupov.
There’s a buildup of not only Canada versus Russia, but the pitting of Edmonton’s No.1 picks – Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Yakupov (2012) – against each other. But Nugent-Hopkins said he’s still finding his stride and that working each day with his linemates is helping.
“I think the first two (pre-tournament) games really helped me out,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I think if I had jumped right into the tournament it would have been a big adjustment for me. The guys who I’m playing with, a lot of these guys will be in the NHL in a couple of years so that definitely makes things easier.”
Malcolm Subban got the start in net for Canada, despite a less than stellar showing in both the selection camp and the first pre-tournament game against Finland. But when tested early against Germany, Subban came through. Spott said going with the Belleville Bulls netminder was a tough decision to make, before adding that the 19-year-old Boston Bruins prospect would likely be the starter for the rest of the tournament, leaving Jordan Binnington as a backup, barring any unforeseen events.
“Our plan is to run with Malcolm against the Slovaks,” said Spott. “I told Jordan to be prepared and he will be.”
And while Canada might have figured out its goaltending and offence for the time being, the team still has to solve its defensive lapses and penchant for taking penalties – something that will have to be sorted out soon before they face tougher competition later in the week.
“Our game has to get better defensively and our specialty teams have to get better as well,” said Spott. “I think we were a bit soft in coverage and I think we have to get to guys quicker and end cycles. If you give European teams time to make plays they’re going to make plays.”