It was an exciting final few minutes that will be remembered by most of the fans in attendance at Rexall Place on Saturday, a good thing since much of the Canadian Red/White game was pretty average. With no cuts being made in this camp and the players in peak August form, one should have probably expected a game like the one we saw yesterday. It had big saves, nice goals, notable collisions and some thrills down the stretch but those highlights were often separated by lengthy lulls.
Midway through the first period there hadn't been much worth noting - Red goalie Mark Visentin (PHX) had made one nifty glove save and White forward Devante Smith-Pelly (ANH) had begun his night of body checks but that's about it.
The first goal of the game came near the end of the opening period, a point shot from Jamie Oleksiak (DAL) that eluded a screened Tyler Bunz (EDM) putting Red ahead by one. The lead didn't last to the end of the period though as Christian "Son of Stumpy" Thomas (NYR) pounced on a rebound and didn't stop shooting until it was behind Visentin. Father Steve Thomas was in attendance wearing his new Tampa Bay garb and sitting a couple of rows in front of me at the time.
The second period featured several minutes of nothingness. At one point it reminded me of a mid-season WHL game between teams tied for last place; no attack, no hitting and no emotion in the crowd. Again, perhaps I should have expected that from a glorified intersquad game in August but... I wasn't.
The only goal of the middle period came off the stick of Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA) but it was all about the set up. Brandon's Mark Stone (OTT) fed Huberdeau the puck with a behind the back, spin-o-rama that left the 2011 3rd overall pick standing in the blue paint with nothing but a gaping net in front of him.
All four goalies played in the game as the relievers came in halfway through the second.
The first five minutes of the third period were the Mark Stone Show; the Wheat Kings 106-point man scored twice including a deadly half-slapper that beat Scott Wedgewood (NJ) high on the glove side. White was then ahead 4-1 and looked to be in full control.
Of course we know how hard those 3-goal leads are to hold when it comes to the World Juniors and on Saturday it was Team White playing the role of the Russians. The comeback would start at the 6:03 mark as Smith-Pelly took time away from drilling players into the boards and sniped one behind Louis Domingue (PHX).
Smith-Pelly played a major role in White's next goal, a power play marker by Quinton Howden. The St.Mike's Majors forward shoved hard off of defenceman Brandon Gormley (PHX), spilling the Moncton d-man in the process, thus creating enough space for himself to accept a Sean Couturier feed and dish it to Howden for a tap in. There should have been a penalty on the play to Smith-Pelly but instead White closed the gap to a single goal.
Cue the guy the fans had paid to see.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM) had been nearly invisible for the first 55 minutes of the game, at least from an offensive standpoint, but in the span of 3:30 he went from "No-Show" to "Stealing the Show" scoring twice to give White the win. RNH's first came on a rebound of a Ty Rattie (STL) shot which he corralled, spun and shot backhand without looking just in time to beat Domingue.
The game winner came after Nugent-Hopkins took a wrist shot from the side boards which was blocked, he then collected it and fired it again this time beating Domingue and putting White ahead to stay.
As I told Corey Graham sitting near me, the voice of the Edmonton Oil Kings, it was very similar to playoff Game 1 between the Rebels and the Oil Kings; RNH was held in check in that game until the final few minutes and he broke loose for 3 points and the win.
To that point in the Red/White game, many of the big name players had accomplished very little. Nugent-Hopkins was quiet offensively but was starting to get on a roll when it came to taking faceoffs. Sean Couturier was equally absent until the middle of the third period. Players like Gregg McKegg, Brett Ritchie, Tyler Toffoli, Patrick Holland, Freddie Hamilton, Michal Bournival and Lucas Lessio were largely non-factors.
Michael Sgarbossa (SJ), Phillip Danault (CHI), Boone Jenner (CLB) and Matt Puempel were OK and at least caught my eye a few times.
No question for me that the two players I'll remember the most were Smith-Pelly and Stone but certainly the former player was the game's best performer.
The defence was generally pretty good and that may have played a big part as to why the forwards looked so average. Cody Ceci impressed and didn't look like the youngest player on the ice. Mark Pysyk (BUF) played his usual calm, no nonsense game which isn't flashy so goes under the radar.
Ryan Murphy (CAR) showed in one shift what coaches love and hate about him; he tried to skate the puck up the ice by himself at one point and failed but then 25 seconds later he hit a streaking forward with a 60 foot pass setting up a scoring chance. It's no wonder why scouts seem so split on his potential as a NHL player.
Duncan Siemens (COL) was burned twice by the speed and shiftiness of an opposing forward bearing down on him. Portland's Ryan Johansen (CLB) popped Siemens in the mouth after a whistle as the two jawed at each other but nothing came of it.
Overall it was a decent game, entertaining because of how starved fans were to see some hockey again but it sure wasn't anything to write home about.
Sunday's rematch in Fort McMurray may prove to be more exciting since it's the last chance for players to make a first impression this summer.