MONTREAL — When things went badly at the start for Team USA in its first game of the world junior championship, there was only one direction to look — toward Jack Eichel.
He’s their captain and best player, and he delivered. Eichel set up the first U.S. goal with a hard play along the boards and scored first in the shootout on the way to a 2-1 American victory over Finland, the defending champion, in the Bell Centre opener.
“I thought Jack, for a little bit, showed a little bit of frustration, trying to do too much,” said Team USA coach Mark Osiecki. “But the best thing that happened early, the leadership came out.
“Jack takes charge, says the right thing. Unbelievable.”
It was Eichel’s first big game in Canada and he found himself under the microscope, as the only player who could possibly supplant Canada’s Connor McDavid as the first overall pick in the summer NHL draft.
If McDavid is the next Sidney Crosby, then Eichel is the next Mike Modano — a guy who can carry a team on his shoulders, a cornerstone around which a franchise can be built. Eichel led the American under-18 team to gold in 2014, and was on the silver medal-winning under-18s in 2013 (losing to Canada).
The streets of downtown Montreal were buzzing — for Boxing Day. Hockey lovers attending the Friday afternoon game at the Bell Centre — the 20,000-seat arena was about half-filled — backed Finland, deeming the Americans the bad guys here.
“That’s what it’s going to be like for the whole tournament here,” said winning goalie Thatcher Demko. “This is a huge hockey city. They’re going to support their home country. Nothing wrong with that.”
It’s an easy choice since Russia is playing in Toronto, and the Americans and Canadians have built up their own rivalry.
There were a few American fans, but when Eichel touched the puck the boos drowned out the cheers — the Bell Centre crowd treating Eichel the way Canadiens supporters get on Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf.
“I know we’re going to be scrutinized and up against things,” said Eichel. “We don’t really want to let the crowd or anything outside distract us. We just want to concentrate on hockey.”
In the shootout, Eichel went first and was booed lustily — until he scored a beauty, picking the top corner. Then fans recognized his talent with a hearty cheer.
The U.S. team has some special chemistry after years of playing together. Eichel has that with Alex Tuch, a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild last summer. Eichel’s behind-the-net, no-look pass set up Tuch’s tying goal.
“It was just like old times,” said Tuch. “He’s so composed, such a leader.”
Funny thing, both play NCAA hockey for fierce rivals — Eichel at Boston University, Tuch at Boston College.
“It was fun to play against him,” Tuch said of Eichel. “I knew to play the body against him, but they ended up on top.”
Eichel is one of four returnees from the team that finished fifth at last year’s world junior event.
“This is a younger team,” said Eichel. “There’s not as much experience, but we have a lot of skill and we’re definitely a fast team.”
The Finns led 1-0 on a mix-up in the U.S. end. The goal was credited to Mikko Rantanen — another projected top-10 pick in the summer — but the Americans put it in themselves.
After Tuch’s goal at 13:54 of the first, neither goalie bent — even through the five-minute overtime. Chase de Leo also scored in the shootout for the Americans, clinching the win.
“It was really good for us to get the win,” said Eichel. “Hopefully we can build off that and get some confidence . . .
“We knew it was going to be a tough game. They make you earn your win. They stick to their game plan for 60 minutes and they have some timely scoring. They almost won it in the last shift.”
The Finns, being the Finns, already have a candidate for goalie of the tournament. It’s Ville Husso, the surprise starter ahead of Juuse Saros — the tournament’s top netminder last year.
Husso is 19, plays in the Finnish league and was passed over twice in the NHL draft.