By Kris Baker for Sabres.com
A stellar individual effort by Casey Mittelstadt (2017, first round) in a United States loss tops the highlight reel for the five Sabres prospects in action on Day 3 of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship.
In Thursday's final contest, the defending gold medalist United States grossly outshot the opponent by a 45-25 margin but gave up a late goal in falling to upset-minded Slovakia 3-2.
It took a full period for Mittelstadt, as well as the entire American squad, to develop a consistent rhythm against a Slovakian defense that jammed up the neutral zone and collapsed around their net, but his game started to blossom following a first-period injury to Logan Brown (OTT), which forced the U.S. staff to juggle its offensive combination.
On his first shift of the second period, Mittelstadt beat a defender down the right side and sent a quick-rising backhand on goal for the first of his four shots in the game.
With the Americans needing a goal trailing 2-1 late, Mittelstadt took things into his own hands with an elite play that saw him motor into a backcheck, strip the puck away from a Slovakian player at the blueline, and quickly execute a backhand toe-drag into a forehand finish to tie the game with 3:11 remaining in regulation.
The play was a perfect combination of his Mittelstadt's competitive desire and superior hands that make him such a dangerous weapon.
Just over a minute later, though, a defensive breakdown by the U.S. helped the Slovaks take the lead and close out the victory.
Mittelstadt leads the tournament with three goals through two games entering Saturday's outdoor contest versus Canada at New Era Field.
--For tickets and more information, please visit BuffaloWorldJuniors.com.--
In Group B action, Alexander Nylander (2016, first round) drilled a a power-play goal and added a primary assist, and Marcus Davidsson (2017 second round) provided an even-strength marker as Sweden skated to a 3-1 victory over the Czech Republic.
Nylander enjoyed a crisper start to the game compared to Tuesday's opener, launching several early shot attempts and circulating the puck with ease on a pair of first-period power plays. Nylander's aptitude with the man advantage paid off on the eventual game-winning goal.
With under minute to play in the opening period, Nylander rotated high in the offensive zone and directed a quick pass to the left right to Elias Pettersson (VAN), who flexed his stick for a bar-down marker.
Nylander would later connect on a power-play laser of his own in the third period to complete his five-shot-on-goal effort.
With the Czech penalty killers trapped and after two of his previous shot attempts were blocked, Nylander retrieved a loose puck, walked down the left side, and pump-faked with his shoulders before putting his quick release on display with a perfectly placed shot far side high over the glove of Jakub Skarek.
Nylander was noticeable in the defensive zone as well, showing a deft stick to take pucks away and re-gain possession.
For the second consecutive game, Nylander, whose deft stick also created a handful of turnovers in both the neutral and defensive zones, was the only Sweden forward to eclipse the 20-minute mark, finishing the game with 20:19 of work in the victory.
Through two games, Nylander is tied for the tournament with four points (1+3).
With Nylander's game ramping up, Davidsson and his tight checking linemates were a nuisance in the Czech zone for the early portion of the game, attacking north-to-south with an energetic pace that proved to be the key on the first goal of the game.
After a long two-line pass by Timothy Liljegren (TOR) to quickly advance the puck up ice, Davidsson drove the center lane with speed as the third forward going to the net and converted a pretty feed from the slot to make it a 1-0 game in the game's sixth minute.
Davidsson scored on his only shot on goal of the game for his first point of the tournament, but like his performance Tuesday, made every shift count with a total two-way effort over his 9:27 body of work.
On the losing side, Czech defenseman Vojtech Budik (2016, fifth round) continued to execute in a conservative, defense-first role, making safe plays to advance the puck while applying his craft in on the penalty kill.
Budik, who skated for 17:49 in the loss, did a solid job getting body position on his man down low and getting pucks off his stick quickly up to the forwards. He didn't get overly involved offensively per his role, but once Sweden took a multiple-goal lead, Budik took a few chances carrying the puck and became more aggressive to hold the offensive zone line before quickly retreating to his left-side defensive post.
To accent his defensive mindset, Budik has yet to record a shot on goal through two games.
In the day's early game, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (2017, second round) followed up an exceptional close to Tuesday's opener with a much easier outing, stopping six of seven shots while getting large breaks in the action as Finland avenged a group stage loss a year ago with a 4-1 triumph over Denmark.
Luukkonen, who only saw one shot in the opening frame and did not see any in the final twenty minutes, surrendered a power-play goal against in the middle period when a shot beat him stick side through a partial screen from the top of the left circle.
The win improves Luukkonen to 1-1 with a 2.54 goals-against average and a .897 save percentage.