From a Buffalo Sabres hockey fan's perspective, the World Junior Hockey Championship has been all about the performance of forward Casey Mittelstadt – the team's first-round selection in last June's NHL Draft. And rightfully so. He not only entered Saturday leading the tournament in points but also scored a highlight-reel goal reminiscent of Bobby Orr's iconic Stanley Cup-clinching goal back in the day for the Boston Bruins.
Mittelstadt is giving the blue-and-gold faithful hope for better days down the road. But, as well as the Minnesota freshman has played, he is not the only reason the Americans are feeling good about themselves following Friday's 4-3 shootout win over Canada at New Era Field.
Team USA likely doesn't secure the comeback triumph without the contributions of Brady Tkachuk. The 6-foot-3, 194-pound power forward with hockey bloodlines has had a coming-out party of his own in the tournament, during his draft year no less. He looks to keep it going Sunday when the U.S. closes out preliminary-round play in Group A against always-tough Finland at KeyBank Center.
Tkachuk has been a physical presence and an annoyance to players not wearing the Team USA's red, white and blue. He's also produced offensively, recording two goals and an assist in three games.
The totals do not include his shootout goal before 44,592 at New Era Field in the first outdoor game in tournament history, a tally that came after he scored the game-tying goal off a feed from Mittelstadt as the Americans overcame a 3-1 deficit through 40 minutes.
"I think he's been outstanding," U.S. coach Bob Motzko said after Saturday's off-day practice at HarborCenter. "He only plays one way. It's just hard and heavy. It's pretty special how that kid works and then he's got hockey talent to go with it. He's been outstanding."
"Brady's got a really nice style of game," added alternate captain Kieffer Bellows, who has a team-high four goals. "He really gets down in the corner and drives down there. He's not afraid to go in front of the net. … He's got an edge to him but he doesn't cross the line. … Brady comes up (big) at big times."
It's not the first time the son of former NHLer Keith Tkachuk and the younger brother of current Calgary Flames forward Matthew has embraced and performed well in a big moment.
Brady has done that a lot during his young career, which includes captaining Team USA's 18-and-under team to a gold medal during last year's world tournament for that age group. He has four goals and 14 points in 19 games as a true freshman with Boston University after skating two seasons with the U.S. National Development Program.
Though the Americans got stunned Thursday by Slovakia, 3-2, Tkachuk did what he tends to do on the international stage -- play well. He got in on the forecheck. He drove the net and, of course, he scored.
He did the same against the Canadians. Tkachuk also bolted into a scrum without hesitation to come to the aid of a teammate in the Canadian crease after a stoppage in which an unidentified American, not Tkachuk, snow-sprayed goaltender Carter Hart – ticking off the Canadians for violating an unwritten rule.
"I try to focus on playing my best every day and getting better every day," Tkachuk said. "(The draft) is a long way away. I just got to live in the moment and cherish every second of this year."
That includes practice as he and his teammates looked noticeably relaxed and in good spirits during the one-hour workout in which the U.S. focused on moving the puck quickly.
Though the team played two tough games on consecutive days, Motzko felt it was important for the players to get some ice time Saturday afternoon. It allowed players a chance to get reacquainted with normal ice conditions since the rest of the team's games in this tournament will be indoors.
The only snow forming on the ice under those conditions will be a byproduct of players stopping and starting.
"We got unplugged," he said. "When you play an eight o'clock game and then play a football game in a snow storm we needed to come over here and skate. We needed to recharge our battery."
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Motzko did not have any updates on the playing status of injured forwards Logan Brown or Will Lockwood. They were still being evaluated during the time Motzko met with the media.