US prospects battle for spots

LAKE PLACID – It was the next closest thing to watching a live NHL game on Thursday when Team USA defeated Finland at the Olympic Center. That level of play, an almost-pro level, has been on display all week during USA Hockey’s Junior National Evaluation Camp.

The crowded ice rink was full of fans cheering for the home team. On the ice were some of the most talented young American and Finnish hockey athletes in their countries.

There are six teams, about 45 players, playing in the USA Hockey camp. USA Hockey invited teams from the Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland. The United States had three teams, USA Blue, USA White and Team USA, which was a combination of players from both teams. The camp is a selection process to choose the United States National Junior Team. The final players to make the cut will compete at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship.

Many of the athletes playing this week at the camp are potential NHL draft picks. A few of the players were as young as 16 years old. Most of them were slightly older and built like NHL players.

Team USA’s first line is a good example of that. Left winger Tyler Motte is 5-foot-9 and 196 pounds, center Jack Eichel is 6-2 and 202 pounds, and right winger Alex Tuch is 6-4 and 224 pounds.

The NHL scouts sat at the top of the bleachers, notebooks and clipboards in hand, keeping an eye on the players from both teams.

Brian Putnam, a scout with the Tampa Bay Lightning, said it doesn’t take an expert to see that Team USA’s first line is good.

“Number 9, Eichel, he’s a very talented player with a lot of upside,” Putnam said. “He should be a very high pick this draft.”

How high of a pick?

“Top five,” Putnam said.

Team USA rolled over Finland on Thursday, winning 9-1. They had the momentum from the get-go, leaving Finland on their heels during all three periods. Much of Team USA’s offense came from their first line, which is centered by Eichel. USA led Finland 2-0 in the first period, after goals by Tuck and Motte, both assisted by Eichel.

In the second period USA scored two quick back-to-back goals in less than two minutes to jump to a 4-0 lead. Finland had a open net scoring chance early, but USA’s goalie Brandon Halverson made an impressive sliding leg save to stop the puck. Eichel scored the fifth goal for Team USA with a wrist shot that beat Finland goalie Atte Makinen. Center Julius Vahatalo put one on the board for Finland later in the second period.

In the third, Team USA made use of its second and third lines, resting their first line for much of that period. Team USA scored 20 seconds into the third period. Motte picked up a hat trick, assisted by Eichel. Team USA defenseman Jack Dougherty had the last goal of the game to set the final score 9-1.

Team USA played hard until the last second ticked away on the clock, showing there was more on the line than just one game. USA Hockey’s Junior National Evaluation Camp wraps up today with a game between Team USA and Czech Republic at 1 p.m.