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Mittelstadt helps U.S. to a strong start at World Juniors

Welcome to Buffalo, Casey Mittelstadt.

For Western New York hockey fans who have been looking for something, anything, positive these days, the 19-year-old from Minnesota playing for Team USA may be the elixir needed to soothe their aching souls.

Mittelstadt had two goals in the first period Tuesday night as the United States opened the World Junior Championship with an 9-0 win over Denmark in KeyBank Center.

Mittelstadt, the Sabres top draft choice in 2017, showed why he went eighth overall. He could pass. He could skate. He moved without the puck. He followed shots. He had a strong yet soft touch on the puck that was accurate and frustrating for Denmark's defense.

For his efforts, Mittelstadt was named the player of the game for the U.S.

"He had the puck a lot and we all saw his stick-handling ability," U.S. coach Bob Motzko said. "He was doing the right things. That's the best thing you can say. He was doing the right things. He was marching forward. It's great to get a guy like that off with a couple goals. There's nothing like scoring a few goals to feel like you're in the tournament for a skill guy. So that's a great start for Casey."

It was a great start for Team USA with power forward Max Jones opening the scoring just 2:27 into the game. With the puck at the right faceoff circle, he skated into the slot and muscled his shot through the Denmark defense and into the back of the net.

That goal opened up the opportunities for the U.S.

Kieffer Bellows quickly made it 2-0 on the power play, taking a pass from Logan Brown then snapping a shot that bounced off Denmark goalie Kasper Krog and into the net.

Mittelstadt ended a strong shift by following his shot and putting in the rebound. Mittelstadt had some beautiful, crisp, creative passing on the shift, skated all over the zone, and was strong in front of the net.

By the midpoint of the first period, it looked almost too easy for Team USA as Kailer Yamamoto took a pass from Brady Tkachuk and buried a hard shot for a 4-0 lead.

Mittelstadt added his second of the period with 1:12 left, taking a pass from Patrick Harper and perfectly placing it for a 5-0 lead.

"I think obviously we came out ready to go," Mittelstadt said. "We got a nice goal from Jonesy right away to start it off and I think that kind of got us rolling. Obviously in a tournament like this with a little bit of nerves, it's big to get the first one. ... I think anytime you're coming out and playing in this big a stage, there's going to be a little bit of nerves but at the same time we're a pretty close team so we're able to stick together through things like that."

There were some nerves for Mittelstadt playing in his first World Juniors. Playing in Buffalo? Well, as he's said in the past, the fact that the tournament in Buffalo is cool and all, but there's not really any extra pressure because of it.

World Juniors: Sabres No. 1 pick Casey Mittelstadt comes to Buffalo to lead Team USA

Oh, and also, Mittelstadt doesn't really talk about his game. He talks about the team.

So let one of his teammates explain what he brought to the U.S. on Tuesday night.

"Every time Casey steps on the ice, everyone's going to be watching. We're watching," said Bellows, an alternate captain for Team USA who finished with two goals in the opening win. "He does some special stuff with the puck. He's a really special player. You know his hockey smarts are off the charts. He really deserved that player of the game tonight.

"I've watched him my whole entire life. I've played with him and against him growing up," said Bellows, a fellow Minnesota native. "I'm happy to see where he is and I can't wait to see what he does in the future."

The future is bright for Bellows, as well, who scored his second of the game in the second period on a penalty shot, using a deke then scoring with a touch backhand through Krog's legs.

Harper added a goal with 29 seconds left in the period as the U.S. lead grew to 7-0.

The Americans rounded out the scoring late in the third with goals 53 seconds apart from Andrew Peeke (power play) and Dylan Samberg.

Joseph Woll made 17 saves for the first shutout of the tournament. The U.S. outshot Denmark, 36-17.

The U.S. is off Wednesday returning to action Thursday when they play Slovakia at 8 p.m. in KeyBank Center.

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