Mark Scheifele will look to lead Team OHL back in the win column after the league’s first loss in Subway Super Series history on Thursday.
The Russians ended their 18-game losing streak against the OHL with some late-game heroics in a 2-1 victory in Guelph last week. Russia now leads the competition with two wins in three games through the first week. They will have an advantage in terms of rest over the Canadian players who played on the weekend while the Russians had time to heel up.
A relatively new group of players will be looked upon to tie the series for Team OHL with 14 fresh faces joining the six returning players on Monday.
"I think it’s important to recognize we’ve divided Team OHL into two and we’ve got two teams," head coach Steve Spott said. "It’s not like we have an opportunity to field our best 20. I think for the kids, it’s an evaluation and we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate a lot of new faces on Monday night."
There will be one familiar face for fans in Sarnia when former Sting forward Nail Yakupov returns for the visiting group of Russian players. Yakupov spent two seasons in Sarnia before being drafted first overall last summer by the Edmonton Oilers. It should be interesting how the crowd welcomes him back considering he jilted the Sting to play in the KHL during the NHL lockout.
Scheifele could be Team OHL’s go-to offensive player in this game after opening the season with an impressive 32 points in 19 games. The Winnipeg Jets prospect is one of the main reasons the Barrie Colts lead the Eastern Conference in points and is showing he can produce more than simply on the score sheet, something Spott is hopeful he can do if a member of the world junior squad.
"He has delivered not only in the summer but to start the season in Barrie with where we need him to be," Spott noted. "So for me, it will just be more of being a calming influence and being a leader on Monday as opposed to putting any extra pressure on him."
A return to his former stomping grounds may be just what Yakupov needs to reignite his offensive game. After scoring once and picking up one assist in the series opener against Team QMJHL, Yakupov has just one assist in his last two games. He will be familiar with the bounces at the RBC Centre which should make him comfortable in these confines.
Max Domi will be looking to leave an impression on the Hockey Canada staff in his only game of the series. Domi is doing his best to compensate for his shorter stature with an offensive game that has seen him score 10 goals and 26 assists in 20 games, good for a tie of 14th in league scoring.
"Max is now a veteran player in our league," Spott said. "Max is an offensive player and we’re going to need him to create offence and obviously to use his skill. He’s a world class player and has an opportunity to be a first-round NHL pick. There will be a great expectation of Max on Monday night and we fully expect he’ll be an offensive threat every time he’s on the ice."
NHL scouts may still be anticipating an offensive threat from Russian draft eligible, Valeri Nichushkin. Although a plus-2 in two games in the Subway Super Series, Nichushkin has yet to reach the score sheet.
The most positive aspect of Team OHL’s 2-1 loss on Thursday, Spott said, was its goaltending. Malcolm Subban began the game and stopped all seven shots he faced, while Jordan Binnington allowed two goals on 10 shots after replacing Subban.
Binnington is back for this game and will be joined by Saginaw’s Jake Paterson. Spott hadn’t declared his starter or whether he planned on splitting duties when asked on the weekend.
"I thought both Jordan and Malcolm played solid and that’s a real positive," he said. "Both goaltenders played well (on Thursday) and obviously going into Christmas, that’s going to be a key factor for us is our goaltending."
The Russians sat Andrei Vasilevski on Thursday and received a stellar performance from Igor Ustinski in his first outing of the series. Vasilevski allowed seven goals on 65 shots in two games against Team QMJHL last week.
"Both goaltenders the Russians have brought over are world class goaltenders," Spott said. "It’s a matter of getting more of a net-front presence. I think we did a good job with managing the puck low and our third man was high, but we’ve got to do a better job of getting pucks and bodies to the net.
"When you look at Game 2 with Quebec, they put a lot more pressure on the Russians and they were rewarded for that. We’ve got to take a page out of their notebook Monday night."
Hockey Canada historically has at least one bruising, physical forward at each world junior tournament. Tom Wilson could figure into that role, though Spott is cautious with him after the big forward missed three weeks of action with a hand injury. Wilson returned to action on the weekend.
"I’m a big fan of Tom Wilson," Spott said. "The key for Tom is going to be his health and whether or not he’s able to play that physical style with his hand right now. He’s going to be a game-time decision and hopefully we can get him in there because he gives us a big body presence."
Alexander Khokhlachev will also return to south-western Ontario after two seasons for the Windsor Spitfires. Like Yakupov, Khokhlachev bolted for the KHL this summer though still just 19 and eligible to play junior. He took a Cody Ceci slapshot off the head while diving to block a shot late in Thursday’s game, but reports indicate he’s no worse for wear and should play.
Team OHL’s streak is gone, but even more important than starting a new streak is to give Team WHL an opportunity to capture the series for the CHL. Regulation wins are worth three points in this series, and Spott is mindful how his team’s performance can impact the final two games.
"It’s critical," he said. "Obviously, the plan is to try to win this tournament and our players are fully aware of what’s at stake on Monday. We want to make sure we do everything in our power to give (Team WHL head coach) Donny Nachbaur and his group of guys a chance to win it."