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COMMENTARY

Sabres prospect Reinhart is big fish on world stage

MONTREAL – Buffalo Sabres fans have to take a chill pill. Seriously. If you don’t get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel – and there’s still 44 games and a lottery for that to shake out – the likely scenario is you’re going to get some other future star with what figures to be another top-5 pick.

And then consider this point: You already have the biggest stud at the World Junior Championships.

No question McDavid and Eichel are good, but the best player on the ice at the Bell Centre the last week has been Sam Reinhart. And that’s the best news Sabres fans and General Manager Tim Murray could get.

With Murray in the stands, Reinhart had a goal and two assists Wednesday night as Team Canada beat Team USA, 5-3, in the hotly anticipated finish to group play. He led all players with six shots on goal. He went 18-5 on faceoffs. It was a dominant performance at both ends of the ice.

Reinhart’s line was normally matched against Eichel, who had one assist and did very little. Reinhart was on the ice in the chaotic final minute, when he scored one empty-net goal and assisted on Max Domi’s clincher that sandwiched a U.S. goal.

Reinhart is leading the tournament in scoring. Not McDavid or Eichel. In four games, Reinhart has three goals, eight points and a plus-9 rating.

What does McDavid think of him?

“He’s unbelievable,” The Next Great One said of Reinhart. “He’s been one of our best forwards in everything he does. He’s a complete two-way player.”

Reinhart set up Domi with a sweet backhand feed to open the scoring at 7:07 of the second period. His empty-netter with 43 seconds left that made it 4-2 was punctuated by a big fist pump and howl, and he went to the bench to celebrate.

When Dylan Larkin scored 12 seconds later to get the Americans back within a goal, Reinhart and his line hopped back on the ice. The U.S. came close to a miracle tying goal, but Canada survived. Reinhart made the final play with a neat diagonal dump pass to Domi in the neutral zone for the empty-netter with four seconds left to finally end the suspense.

Reinhart was swarmed in the media mixed zone after the game, and he wasn’t talking about himself very much.

“We’re more and more confident every game,” he said. “We have to stay humble about it. It’s going good for now.”

I asked Reinhart the question that brought that answer. I was a foot away from him so he heard it fine. I asked about him. Not his team or his line. That was his answer. And it says volumes.

You have to like that mentality.

When we saw Reinhart struggle during his NHL tryout, it was really about his physical strength. He needs to work on his conditioning, just like Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen and Mikhail Grigorenko have been forced to do.

Reinhart’s hockey sense says star, as it should. The Sabres got the No. 2 overall pick and it was crushing for Murray to have his first top choice not be good enough to stick with one of the NHL’s bottom teams.

So Reinhart went back to junior and re-established the fact he could score. The Sabres were almost certainly releasing him for this tournament had he stayed in the NHL, and his dominance is a best-case scenario.

“Sam is a big, big part of our team,” said Canada coach Benoit Groulx. “When he’s on the ice and touches the puck, he controls the puck and makes plays for his wingers every time. It’s a good play for our team ... When he’s on the ice, good things happen for us.”

Plenty of good things happened in this one, as a crowd of about 18,000 chanted and roared and sang its way through an epic battle. The teams combined for 71 shots on goal (43 by Canada), skated like the wind and issued body checks that registered all the way up to the press box eight floors above the ice.

“It was great,” Reinhart said. “Right from the start, the crowd got big into it and that only helps us out more.”

Eichel nearly scored on a rebound 30 seconds into the game and didn’t come close again.

McDavid had an assist on Curtis Lazar’s goal at 10:01 of the third period that put Canada up, 3-1, and said there was no relief in having the long-awaited showdown complete.

“I wasn’t really thinking about it,” McDavid said. “To say you want to skip a game isn’t fair. It’s Canada-US. Montreal. New Year’s. It’s so exciting. I think we all enjoyed it.”

“After the first period, we kind of relaxed and focused on our own game a little more as opposed to the game outside the game,” Reinhart said. “I think we were better for it the last two periods.”

Sabres fans should have loved this game. USA forward and Murray trade acquisition Hudson Fasching had a sweet assist on Dylan Larkin’s third-period goal. The best defenseman on the ice? It sure looked like USA’s Noah Hanifan, who most observers feel will be the first non-McEichel player drafted come June.

And which team very well could have the No. 3 pick and possibly take a guy compared to Ryan Suter, Duncan Keith or Drew Doughty? Uh-huh.

As for this tournament, Canada wins Group A at 4-0 and plays upstart Denmark in the quarterfinals Friday in Toronto. Team USA (3-1) has a much tougher quarterfinal against Russia. Maybe they play for a gold medal Monday night. Canada will be depending on its No. 1 center to bring home the gold for the first time since 2009.

In this tourney, the No. 1 center for our friends north of the border is not named McDavid.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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