BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) A funny thing happened when the offensively challenged Sabres left town for two weeks to make way for the world junior hockey championship.
Buffalo’s win-starved hockey fans got a promising glimpse into the future thanks to Casey Mittelstadt. The 19-year-old forward from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, earned tournament MVP honors while keying the United States’ run to a bronze medal .
”You have to find hope and positive energy from a performance such as Casey’s,” Sabres general manager Jason Botterill told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
”With it being here in Buffalo, there was that added pressure,” Botterill added. ”And I think you saw a player who instead of succumbing to the pressure, actually thriving in that type of environment.”
Mittelstadt, selected by the Sabres with the eighth pick in last year’s draft, finished tied for the tournament lead with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in seven games. And the University of Minnesota freshman punctuated his visit by scoring a highlight-reel goal in a 3-2 preliminary-round loss to Slovakia.
With Team USA trailing 2-1, Mittelstadt stripped the puck from Marian Studenic at the Slovakia blue line and circled back into the zone. Mittelstadt kicked the puck between his legs to avoid a check by defender Michal Ivan and didn’t break stride in cutting across the top of the crease and avoiding goalie Roman Durny. He swept a shot into the open left side with 3:11 remaining.
That was nothing, said U.S. captain Joey Anderson, who grew up playing with Mittelstadt.
”He’s got a whole arsenal of fun stuff to watch,” Anderson said. ”When we were younger, he’d pull stuff out of his hat that were awesome moves.”
Botterill laughed when asked how many times he replayed the goal.
”What I was really impressed about that goal was certainly it was a beautiful, beautiful hockey play, but it was the timing of it,” Botterill said. ”Here was a scenario where he was trying to give his team a spark in a crucial situation. I think that’s certainly what we need here in Buffalo.”
Ah yes, the Sabres, a team mired in last place in the Eastern Conference standings and in jeopardy of extending its franchise-worst playoff drought to seven seasons. Buffalo has a league-worst 92 goals, scoring one or fewer goals 14 times, including five shutouts.
Botterill thinks it will still be some time before Mittelstadt lines up alongside Buffalo’s current U.S star, Jack Eichel.
Botterill wants Mittelstadt to continue developing at the college level and will wait until Minnesota’s season ends before meeting the player to discuss his future, including the potential of signing an NHL contract.
Mittelstadt said the thought of one day playing in the Sabres’ home arena as an NHLer crossed his mind, though he was more focused on the tournament and then getting back to Minnesota. Two days after the U.S. beat the Czech Republic 9-3 in the bronze-medal game, Mittelstadt was back on the ice for the Golden Gophers in a 2-0 win over top-ranked St. Cloud State.
The world juniors served as a cautionary tale to the International Ice Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and even the NHL for flooding one region with too many major events.
Citing poor attendance figures in Buffalo, IIHF President Rene Fasel acknowledged organizers over-estimated how many times the tournament can be held in the same geographical area.
The 2018 tournament drew 211,210 fans, including a world junior record of 44,592 for an outdoor game between the U.S. and Canada played at the NFL Buffalo Bills’ stadium.
Though the turnout ranks 10th overall, the attendance was nearly 120,000 fewer than when Buffalo hosted the 2011 world juniors.
One reason was the Canadian loonie being some 20 cents lower than the U.S. dollar this time. Another concern was the tournament being held for the fourth time in seven years in either Buffalo or Toronto, which are about 110 miles apart.
Add to that, Toronto hosted the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and the outdoor Centennial Classic last winter.
”It shows us that in the future we should be a little bit more careful,” Fasel said. ”Sometimes you can overdo saturation.”
Next year’s tournament will be co-hosted by Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia.
WORLD CUP TALK
NHL Players’ Association chief Donald Fehr told The AP that the union and the NHL have had very preliminary discussions over staging another World Cup. Fehr said the tournament came up when the two sides discussed developing a long-term international calendar.
”I think we’re a ways away from that, but I’m hopeful we’ll be able to come to grips with that sometime in the next several months,” Fehr said.
Aside from the Sabres, who have won consecutive games just once this season, the Canucks entered their game at Washington on Tuesday 2-10-2 in their previous 14.
The Bruins entered their five-day break on an 8-0-3 roll following a 6-5 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Sunday. Boston’s 17-3-3 in its past 23.
LEADERS (Through games Monday)
Points: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 59. Goals: Kucherov and Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 27. Rookie points: Brock Boeser (Vancouver), 40. Goals by defensemen: Zach Werenski (Columbus), 11. Goals-against average (minimum 20 games): Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 2.04.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Southern California’s rivalry heats up on Saturday when Anaheim travels to play Los Angeles. Their last three meetings have been decided after regulation, including the Kings’ 2-1 shootout win on Nov. 25.
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