THEY’RE NO. 1 WITH A BULLET
Top junior line on fire in opener
• On paper, the trio looked terrific. The slick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins flanked by Mark Scheifele and Jonathan Huberdeau. What team wouldn’t want to unleash that offensive potential?
But in order for Team Canada’s plan to work, Scheifele had to be able to make the transition from centre to right wing, and the three talents had to develop some chemistry.
So far, so good. The trio delivered on opening day, combining for four of Canada’s goals in a 9-3 victory over Germany, and they will be the line to watch on Friday against Slovakia. It is their mission to dominate.
“That’s what we wanted, we wanted to come together as a great line from the first game and I think that’s what we did,” said Huberdeau, who would surely be playing with the Florida Panthers and not the Saint John Sea Dogs were it not for the NHL lockout.
In fact the top line wouldn’t have even be an option had the NHL been in action with Nugent-Hopkins playing for the Edmonton Oilers and Scheifele playing with the Winnipeg Jets.
“It’s something you hope for when you put a line together like that. All three of those players are in an NHL mindset, all three have NHL abilities,” said Spott. “The challenge was Mark Scheifele and how he would adjust to the wing.
“It still is a concern. You hope that Mark can continue to play there because he’s such a tremendous centreman.”
The three were quiet in a warm-up tournament as was the team, which scored just three regulation goals in games against Finland and Sweden. Nugent-Hopkins said there were signs of progress in the 2-1 shootout win over the Swedes and then it clicked early against Germany.
Steve Yzerman, the Tampa Bay Lightning general manager who has overseen Canada’s Olympic entries, was in Finland during the tournament and not only addressed the team but also seconded the plan to give the top line a chance.
“Steve said it best,” said Spott. “What it does is allows us to open up things for the likes of Ryan Strome and Boone Jenner (who is suspended and will join the team in the fourth game) and the Mark McNeills because teams have to put out their best checking line and their top two defencemen. They’re just so dynamic so it should open up ice for the players below them.
“I think the Strome line could be the subplot of this tournament.”
In the meantime, the top line has every intention of creating some havoc. Huberdeau said he couldn’t remember the last time he played on a line with so much potential but he said it’s been easy to play with Nugent-Hopkins and Scheifele.
“I just pass the puck and I know I’m going to get it back,” he said. “We have good chemistry and we just have to keep going against Slovakia.
“We’re just going to keep working harder.
“Of course it’s possible (to not have chemistry). Maybe we got lucky. We don’t know. Hopefully not. That’s why we’re going to keep working hard. We had a pretty good first game and that’s what we wanted. Now we have to keep going.
“We are a line that can provide a lot of offence and that’s what we want to do but we have to keep going and keep getting better.”
He got no argument from Scheifele, who said the move to the wing has been that much easier given that Nugent-Hopkins is playing in the middle.
“He moves the puck so well. All I’m trying to do is get open, find those open spots. If I do, I know he’s going to find me. Same with Hubie,” said Scheifele. “They’re both unbelievable players and I just want to compliment them.
“It’s a short tournament and it’s whoever comes together the quickest that is going to be the team that’s going to win. We need to build off that game.
“We had talked to each other about getting off to a good start in this tournament and I think we did (but) we have a lot of games left and we have to keep developing our chemistry. “We just want to continue to dominate and get better and better each day.”