Clayton Keller seemed to smell blood. With his American team holding a one-goal lead late in the third period, Keller jumped on a loose puck in the neutral zone, blasted down his off wing and cut hard toward the middle of the ice. As a forward chasing the play, Kirill Urakov’s one option was to reach out and spin Keller off balance, which caused the left winger to pile into Russian goalie Ilya Samsonov.
As Urakov glided toward the penalty box, Keller moved gingerly toward the U.S. bench, flexing his right leg in an attempt to shake out something that stung. He was about 20 feet from his seated teammates when directions came to pull an about-face and set up for the man advantage.
Hurt or not, when extra room is available, you want Keller on the ice.
Nobody on Team USA capitalized on Urakov’s holding penalty, but Keller and the Americans managed to hang on for a critical 3-2 win over Russia on Thursday afternoon at the World Junior Championship in Toronto. The victory ensures first place in Group B will be on the line when the red, white and blue face their Canadian foes on a Saturday night New Year’s Eve showdown.
That will be some fans’ first real glimpse of Keller, though there’s less and less mystery surrounding the Arizona Coyotes prospect.
“I think the hockey world already knows what he’s about,” said American captain Luke Kunin, who grew up playing with Keller from the pair’s early youth hockey days in suburban St. Louis. “He’s a high-end skill player, and he’s going to do great things down the road.”
He’s certainly turning in a remarkable performance at his first WJC.
In Team USA’s opening game, Keller doggedly chased down Latvian Karlis Cukste in the offensive zone, stripped him of the puck, curled at the top of the circle and fired a shot over goalie Mareks Mitens’ glove hand.
In Game 2 against Slovakia, the 18-year-old sent a beautiful pass to a streaking Colin White for one of those goals where, as long as White kept enough pressure on his blade, the feed alone ensured the puck was going in.
“He can find anyone,” Kunin said of Keller. “When he’s out there, you’ve got to be ready to get the puck.”
Nobody knows that better than White, Keller’s centre. During the NCAA season, the pair are blood rivals, with freshman Keller lining up for Boston University, while sophomore White represents Boston College. On the national team, though, they’ve shown a serious bond, first at the 2015 Under-18s and now at this event, where the pair are tied for the American lead with three goals apiece through a trio of outings.
“Whenever he has [the puck], I know where he’s going to go with it,” White said. “I just try to get myself into open space.”
Facing Russia, the stiffest competition he’s seen in the tournament, Keller opened the scoring by taking a pass at the side of net, eschewing any notion of panic, sucking the puck around Danila Kvartalnov and depositing it past Samsonov, who was sprawled out like a kid who slid off his toboggan at the bottom of a hill.
After the game, Keller—who also added a helper in the contest and leads Team USA with five points in the tourney—offered up a more understated version of the scoring play.
“I just tried to make a move and put it in the net,” he said.
Mission accomplished on that front, as well as stoking the hopes of Coyotes fans who are likely overjoyed their team selected Keller seventh overall last June, just ahead of three other prospects in this tournament, Sweden’s Alexander Nylander (Buffalo), Russia’s Mikhail Sergachev (Montreal) and Canada’s Tyson Jost (Colorado).
The player who went one spot ahead of Keller, Matthew Tkachuk, is also a St. Louis-area product and grew up with Keller and Kunin in a community where Tkachuk’s dad, Keith, was just one former Blue who spent time on Missouri rinks developing the next generation.
“You have to give a lot of credit to all the guys who gave back to us, all the ex-NHLers,” said Keller, beaming a bit while speaking about the state of U.S. hockey.
The way he’s playing right now, everyone supporting the Stars and Stripes should be excited.