By Kris Baker for Sabres.com
Opening Day of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship came and went Tuesday with all five Sabres prospects taking the ice and setting the stage for the remainder of group play.
As expected, Casey Mittelstadt (2017, first round) was an offensive force for the full sixty minutes in his first-ever World Junior appearance, pocketing a pair of first-period goals to earn the team's Player of the Game honor as the United States pasted Denmark 9-0.
Exceptional hands in tight spaces. Nimble footwork and balance. A knack for being in the right spot when he doesn't have the puck. Commitment to the backcheck and using his body to win puck battles. All the things that make Mittelstadt an elite National Hockey League prospect were on display in his 18:43 of work during the opening night rout.
With the U.S. already ahead 2-0, Mittelstadt snatched the first of his pair at 8:26. After his backhand shot attempt from the left face-off circle didn't make its way fully on net, Mittelstadt used a quick speed burst to swoop towards the net and finish the play with another backhand.
While his first goal was impressive, the shift leading up to his second marker 10 minutes later was vintage Mittelstadt.
The play began with Mittelstadt showing excellent speed through the neutral zone and a great handle on the puck as he stepped around a defender to the outside. Two defenders closed in on him as he gained the zone, at which point he made a hard stop, turned his body, and dished the puck off.
With Patrick Harper (NSH) controlling the puck behind the Danish net, Mittelstadt read the play and set up at the left post with his stick down, where he took a pass and quickly elevated the puck to make it a 5-0 game.
For tickets and more information on the tournament, check out BuffaloWorldJuniors.com.
In the day's opening contest, defenseman Vojtech Budik (2016, fifth round) played safe, responsible hockey en route to logging 18:52 of ice time as the Czech Republic outlasted Russia 5-4.
Budik, who did not record a shot on goal in the victory, was in the starting lineup as the top left-side defenseman. When not patrolling the defensive half of the ice at even strength, Budik was most noticeable with quick outlet passes and tough battles in front of his own net on the penalty kill.
Shot attempts will be a rare event for Budik in this tournament, but his conservative style will be of value if the Czechs can keep scoring like they did Tuesday. Moving forward, you want to see the Western Hockey League product win more one-on-one battles beneath his own goal line.
The second game of the afternoon saw high-flying Sweden pull away from Belarus to earn a 6-1 victory.
Alexander Nylander (2016, first round) settled in after an opening period that saw him turn a puck over that led to Belarus' only goal, finishing the game with a pair of assists and three shots on goal to help fuel the opening day triumph.
Nylander did not appear to be fully in sync in the opening minutes, but his playmaking instincts emerged as the game progressed, especially in the final two periods as he showed both confidence and patience with the puck as he worked the left side of the power play.
Nylander's patience and vision were put on display when earning both of his primary helpers, with the first coming as he found Erik Brannstrom (VGK) as a trailer high in the zone midway through the second period, and the second with a quick feed from the left wall to Lias Andersson (NYR) at the edge of the crease.
If there was one noticeable trait in Nylander's game from start to finish, it was his strength on the puck. There were a few instances where a defender was draped on his back in the corner, but the added upper-body strength allowed him to maintain possession and find himself an out an open teammate.
He showed a willingness to battle in the paint, something that the Swedish staff likely wants him to do more often to get him away from the perimeter and open him up for more scoring chances as the tournament plays out.
Nylander, who took even-strength shifts at both right wing and center, topped all forwards with 20:14 of work in the win.
Sweden played with great pace and energy all game long, and Marcus Davidsson (2017, second round) certainly did his part in driving the attack with a full 200-foot effort down the middle.
Everything Davidsson does is with a purpose. He logged just one shot on goal over the course of his 18 shifts (10:25), but he played with great intensity throughout, was smart with his angles on the forecheck and tracked back hard into the defensive zone. He was decisive and methodical as a checking-line center, making him a valuable piece that can be moved up and down the lineup with great confidence.
In the 4 p.m. game, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (2017, second round) earned the start in the Finnish net, making 28 saves in a 4-2 loss to Canada.
After getting rattled by three goals against in the opening period, Luukkonen was dialed in the rest of the way with 24 stops in the final two frames, including an exceptional 15-save effort in the third period.
The massive 6-foot-4 netminder moved well laterally all game and remained upright when dropping to his knees. His glove hand was sharp, and he was aggressive when challenging shooters, coming out to the edge of the white ice to take away the angles.
Canada's first goal came on their third shot of the game as Boris Katchouk blew past two Finnish defenders and went in alone on Luukkonen. Katchouk made a quick move to his backhand and got the puck past Luukkonen's outstretched left leg just as he crashed into the crossbar. Video reply confirmed that the puck crossed the line prior to the net being fully dislodged.
The second and third goals scored on Luukkonen likely could have been thwarted with better defensive coverage from the Finnish forwards.
With Finland's captain Juuso Valimaki in the penalty box, Canada jammed the net and saw a rebound squirt out to an uncovered Sam Steel (ANA), who beat a sprawling Luukkonen on the glove side to make it two goals on four shots.
Minutes later, a Finnish defender broke up an odd-man rush with a poke-check, only to see the puck land right on the stick of Jonah Gadjovich (VAN), who quickly sent a pass diagonally through the slot to Drake Batherson (OTT) for the clean finish as Luukkonen moved from left to right.
The fourth goal came on a busted play in the second period when Taylor Raddysh (TAM) fired a knuckle-ball shot from above the right face-off circle that sunk at the last second over Luukkonen's pad.
After a full four-game slate to open the tournament, things will slow a bit Wednesday with just two contests on the schedule involving one Sabres prospect. Following a matchup between Belarus and Switzerland, Budik and the Czech Republic will look to improve to 2-0 in a key Group A battle with Canada.
Stay tuned to Sabres.com for Kris Baker's 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship updates throughout the tournament. For more throughout the week on Sabres prospects in action, check out Kris Baker's website SabresProspects.com and follow him on Twitter at @SabresProspects.