This was a very Merry Christmas for Mike Reilly, who put all of his cards on the table in an effort to make Team USA's final roster.
It started with an impressive showing at USA Hockey's national junior team evaluation camp last summer in Lake Placid, and the confidence gained from that transferred to his freshman season at the University of Minnesota. Reilly got comfortable and adjusted to college hockey faster than some expected, and his ice time has gradually increased as a result.
U.S. head coach Phil Housley seemingly liked Reilly right away. After all, he possesses a lot of the same skills Housley became famous for throughout his storied NHL career (disclaimer: this is in no way a comparison of the two, just so we're clear).
Reilly has tremendous foot speed, puck skills and the ever-important quality scouts look for known as a "hockey sense." He thinks the game extremely well and knows when to lead and join the rush -- making him a valuable asset, especially in a short tournament setting.
The coaching and management staff for USA Hockey agreed. When final World Junior rosters were submitted this morning in Ufa, Russia, Reilly's name was among the six defenseman registered for the United States.
The International Ice Hockey Federation apparently did not share the same opinion as Canada head coach Steve Spott.
Two days after Boone Jenner delivered a hard open-ice hit to Jesper Pettersson of Sweden -- causing a dislocated shoulder and broken wrist for the Swedish defenseman -- the IIHF underwent a thorough disciplinary review of the hit, which became a hot topic of conversation in the hockey world over the weekend.
Video footage of the hit and replays show Pettersson making a transition pass out of his own zone, and about a second later, absorbing a massive hit from Jenner that sent him hard to the ice. The IIHF says in its press release that Jenner's suspension comes as a result of the hit being late, and with no intention of making a play on the puck.
Both Jenner and Spott spoke with TSN and media on-site after the game against Sweden and defended the hit. Jenner said he thought the hit was clean because he kept his arms and shoulders down, and was simply "finishing his check." Spott agreed and didn't think the incident merited supplementary discipline.
Alas, a three-game suspension for Jenner was announced this afternoon, meaning he will miss Canada's games against Germany, Slovakia and the United States.
As if the heated competition for Team USA's final roster spots didn't need any more drama, it got another dose early this morning.
With a scheduled announcement for 3 a.m. ET (10 a.m. in Finland, where the team is currently stationed) from USA Hockey to announce the team's World Junior roster, one would think the players in contention would finally have some clarity one way or the other. They took 26 players to Helsinki for two pre-tournament games and have to get down to 23 players by the IIHF roster deadline on Christmas Day.
As of this writing, the U.S. roster sits at 24 players and the last cut will be on defense, where Blue Jackets prospect Mike Reilly is still sweating it out.
Has he done enough in both the U.S.' summer camp and in pre-tournament competition to solidify his spot on Team USA? It's tough to tell, especially with the number of high-skill, puck-moving defenseman that head coach Phil Housley has at his disposal.
With the home team playing inspired hockey of late and the Falcons sputtering a bit since the turn of December, this game set up to be an important one as the American Hockey League prepares for its annual holiday break.
Springfield entered the game three points behind the Syracuse Crunch for first place in the Eastern Conference and desperately wanted to make up ground and go into the break with a win. And when you have the AHL's best goaltender wearing your sweater, the odds are increasingly better of making that happen.
Matt Calvert scored a nifty shorthanded goal at 18:24 of the opening period for the only goal of the game, and the Falcons defense did the rest in a much-needed 1-0 victory at the Giant Center. Calvert made a terrific individual play to make his goal happen, too; he stole the puck at the Springfield blue line as two Hershey players fought for the puck, and he skated 150 feet before putting a slick deke on Bears goaltender Braden Holtby.
It was Calvert's eighth goal of the season and it stood up as the game-winner.
Phil Housley knew the final decisions would be the hardest, and now, the time has arrived to make them.
USA Hockey brought 27 players to its pre-World Junior training camp in Tarrytown, N.Y. last week and that number was soon cut to 26. Stefan Noesen, under suspension by the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), had his discipline upheld by the IIHF and was deemed ineligible to play in the tournament. It was a big blow to Team USA as Noesen is a talented player that should have been an impact player for the Americans, but they had to move on.
It's Saturday afternoon in the United States and it's even later in Finland, and I can imagine Housley and the USA Hockey management staff fretting over cuts that could come down to splitting hairs.
The final roster cuts will be announced at 3 a.m. ET Sunday, USA Hockey announced this afternoon, which is later than originally thought but with the magnitude of the decisions, easy to see why they need some additional time.
Boone Jenner is at his best when he plays on the edge, and sometimes, a player of his ilk can push the envelope.
His role on this year's Canadian squad at the World Junior Hockey Championship figures to be more of a grinding, third-line type with so many elite players on the roster. With that comes the responsibility of playing a high-energy, physical brand of hockey that disrupts the flow of the opposition.
In today's 2-1 shootout win by Team Canada, Jenner delivered a hit to Sweden's Jesper Pettersson as the latter attempted to transition the puck out of the zone. Pettersson released the puck, and seconds later, absorbed a significant check from Jenner that sent him tumbling to the ice in obvious pain.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) announced this afternoon that Pettersson suffered a dislocated shoulder and broken wrist as a result of the play, and it remains to be seen whether the player's injuries give way to a heavier suspension.
Jenner spoke to TSN's Mark Masters after the game and said he felt the hit was clean, and he hopes Pettersson is going to be OK.
The title of this blog post pretty much sums it up: Mike Reilly is firmly on the bubble as decision day approaches for Team USA.
A steady performance today in the U.S.' 3-2 win over Sweden in pre-tournament play should help his cause, but there's a long road ahead before coach Phil Housley and the USA Hockey management team make the final call.
Reilly played 19:06 -- the third-highest total among American defensemen -- and was given plentiful chances to run the point on the power play and be the "transition guy" on the breakout, which is far and away his bread and butter.
Fans that watched today's game saw Reilly's high-end speed and shiftiness with the puck, two things that have earned the trust of Don Lucia, his head coach at the University of Minnesota.
His next challenge is winning over Housley, one of the best American-born hockey players of all-time and a guy Reilly and his teammates grew up idolizing. Team USA plans to take seven defensemen over to Russia for the World Junior, and at the moment, Reilly is among a group of three or four guys vying for the last two spots.
Reilly played most of today's game alongside Patrick Sieloff, a second-round pick (2012) of the Calgary Flames. Both are excellent skaters with Sieloff being the more physical player of the duo, but I thought they were a good pair.
Chris Peters, who runs The United States of Hockey blog (easily the best source of USA Hockey coverage around), was kind enough to share his thoughts on Reilly's performance today.
There's certainly pressure on Team Canada as pre-tournament play begins today, but with the team already selected, it's more about fine-tuning the engine.
After a 3-2 loss to Finland today in Helsinki, head coach Steve Spott will likely have a list of things to review with his club. The Canadians weren't very crisp with the puck (especially in the neutral zone) and made far too many mistakes that Finland would eventually take advantage of.
Finland was strong from the start and forced Canada into four minor penalties in the first 15 minutes of play. On their fourth power play of the opening period, Joel Armia set up Markus Granlund to give the Finns a 1-0 lead that they would take into the dressing room after 20 minutes.
But as they have shown over the years, the Canadians have a quick-strike offense that can change a game in the blink of an eye. Blue Jackets prospect Boone Jenner got Canada going in the second period with a deft set up that Griffin Reinhart buried at 3:05 of the middle frame.
Ryan Johansen said last week that one of the challenges of being in first place is wearing the bullseye on your back.
You're going to get each opponent's best effort with no questions asked, and the Falcons have had to bring their A-game every night. The shoe is on the other foot tonight as Springfield heads to Portland, where the Pirates have won five straight games and are the hottest teams in the American Hockey League (sound familiar?)
These two clubs have gone at it this season, including an overtime thriller in Portland on Black Friday -- well, the Falcons wouldn't say it was too thrilling, but I digress.
Rewind to that game: Springfield built a 4-1 lead and seemed to be in total control. The Pirates lacked energy and the game had, for a moment, lost its sense of competitiveness. But the game completely tilted on its axis, with the Pirates scoring four straight goals in a span of 6:33 and taking advantage of several Falcons penalties to lead 5-4.
Sean Collins tied the game on a rebound late in the second period, but Oliver Ekman-Larsson needed just seconds of overtime to end the game and send Springfield to a disheartening defeat.
From that point, though, the Falcons played much better hockey and ascended to the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They now trail Syracuse by two points for first place, but their consistency has been a marvel.
If there was ever a "knock" on Boone Jenner, some say he could become a more explosive skater. One summer changed that perception.
While his intangibles have always been off the charts and his competitive edge likely unparalleled among his peers, Jenner went into the last offseason looking to become a bit quicker and powerful in his skates, and he's started to see dividends.
The hope was that he could use the added speed to be better on the forecheck and take advantage of mistakes -- and that killer instinct is a big reason why he's the leading goal scorer in the Ontario Hockey League. Jenner, 19, is having his most productive offensive season to date, with 27 goals and 47 points in 32 games for the Oshawa Generals.
Next up is the World Junior Hockey Championship in Ufa, Russia, and it's likely Jenner will be playing an even larger role for Canada than he did a year ago. At last year's tournament, Jenner was mostly a bottom-six guy who killed penalties and saw some occasional ice time on the power play; but with a distinct increase in goal-scoring this year, it will be tough for head coach Steve Spott to leave Jenner out of offensive situations.