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Friday, December 26, 2008

On Hockey

Centers of attention
vanRiemsdyk, Wilson anchor veteran core at WJC

New Hampshire sizzler James vanRiemsdyk somehow squeezed his destructively gawk-worthy frame into that unheard-of median that offers nascent NHLers a third tour of duty in the World Junior Championships.

There are those, like Sidney Crosby, who crack their country’s roster so early (minimum age limit: 16) they have to pack an all-encompassing face shield per IIHF rules. But, by the same token, those peerless players will have graduated to The Show by 18.

More commonly, though, one is selected for the post-holiday adventure when he is a collegiate freshman or the equivalent age and, lo and behold, watches his eligibility evaporate after no more than two tournaments.

But vanRiemsdyk, who won’t hit 20 until May, got a jumpstart to his magnetic attention seizure while a member of the National Team Development Program two years back and has since forged a flexible timetable with the Philadelphia Flyers, who laid claim to his rights with the second overall pick in the 2007 Draft.

Citing a personal cautionary decision to whet his blades for at least another year, concomitant with a timely resurgence on Philly’s part, vanRiemsdyk is topping the scoring charts in Hockey East as a UNH sophomore and now returns to Team USA as the reigning point-leader (11) in the WJC pool.

He and fellow towering pivot Colin Wilson of Boston University both. Wilson, whom Nashville plucked from the pool seventh overall last summer, will split the “A” with associate Terrier Kevin Shattenkirk in his second World Junior excursion, beneath head captain Jonathon Blum –another Predator prospect fostering with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants.

The Americans commence round robin play at suburban Ottawa’s ScotiaBank Place in a 3:30 twig-lock with Germany this afternoon. The aforementioned returnees –together with Minnesota freshman Jordan Schroeder, fellow Gopher Cade Fairchild, Notre Dame’s Ian Cole, and Michigan’s Matt Rust- recall coming within hooking distance of hardware and hope this year’s offering tips the scale.

"I know we've got a lot of talent on this team," vanRiemsdyk said in Monday’s issue of the Toronto Sun. "We've got (seven) guys coming back from last year's team and it's exciting to be playing in this tournament again. It's also exciting to play with Colin and Jordan again. We had some good success in the past and hopefully we'll get it started here."

By “it,” he implicitly means a new habit of playing somewhere a tad more upmarket than the bronze medal game for a change. In the four tournaments since the youthful Star-Spangled Skaters broke themselves new ice with gold in 2004, the program has been lodged in a pothole of 3rd/4th place finishes, only once claiming a medal in 2007.

Last winter, the Amerks posted an infallible 4-0 log in round robin action, but puffed out inconveniently when they confronted Canada in the semifinal, losing 4-1 on the minimal strength of vanRiemsdyk’s late third period goal. The following day, they submitted to Russia, 4-2, to relinquish the bronze.

Wilson, vanRiemsdyk, and one fellow Hockey Easterner in BC freshman Jimmy Hayes constitute three of four U.S. strikers boasting the Cyclopean combo of a 6-foot-plus stature and 200-plus pounds in weight. All will indubitably pack in considerable muscle-based maneuverability, but the vets have the rest of their dressing room leaning forward with an expectant, little-brotherly smile for their seasoning and recent radiation in intercollegiate action.

Amongst all HEA puckslingers, vanRiemsdyk is #1 with 26 points overall; Wilson third with 21. In the way of assists, vanRiemsdyk is tops with 17, Wilson #2 with 14. Wilson has been the most proficient individual on anyone’s power play, charging up 4-7-11 totals when the Terriers are a man up. An otherwise shallow New Hampshire PP brigade has been supplied with four goals and six helpers via vanRiemsdyk.

Fifth-year NTDP U18 head coach Ron Rolston –who claims the rotating torch as American foreman from Warwick native John Hynes - has reacquainted himself with both centerpieces, who each underwent last-minute college prep grooming with him in Ann Arbor, Mich. And curiously, he has partnered the two on the top line with Schroeder, another early bloomer who finished second behind vanRiemsdyk with eight points in the 2008 tournament, then went back to business in Ann Arbor before he enrolled at “The U.”

But the statistically gluttonous arrangement flaunted no flaws in this week’s pair of exhibition games. The coastal rivals-by-winter collaborated twice in a tone-setting first period en route to a 13-2 throttling of Latvia Sunday –a goal apiece for van Riemsdyk and Wilson, assisted by the other. They reran that act Tuesday in steamrolling the rival Russians, 5-1, complete with a 40-17 shooting discrepancy.

“A lot of talent,” the simply spoken UNH kid said prophetically, as was also underscored by full-time Wolverine Aaron Palushaj’s hat trick. They just need to be sure that talent comes with a lot of shelf life, preferably with a Sell By date of Jan. 5 or later.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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