While it’s probably prudent to curb ones enthusiasm, given Team Canada’s opening game at the World Junior Championship in Russia amounted to little more than a controlled scrimmage against an overmatched opponent, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins gave fans plenty to cheer about in a 9-3 waltz over Germany today.
In the first game of his first and only crack at WJC opponents, the Edmonton Oilers centre made his debut a memorable one with a five-point game, a goal and four assists, as Canadian fans were sleeping off their Christmas turkey and liquor before crawling out of the rack and getting ready to line-up outside electronics stores for Boxing Day specials.
As usual, veteran hockey writer Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail summed it up best, describing RNH’s performance in the walkover against Germany this way:
"First to applaud is the play of captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who seems, at times, to be the only one on skates out there, moving up and down the ice so effortlessly it appears he is playing in the Russian space station rather than the Ufa Arena."
With a season in the NHL with the Oilers and almost half a pro campaign with Oklahoma City of the AHL on his resume, there will be those prone to point out there is nothing surprising about seeing Nugent-Hopkins dominate at the WJC, as he did against the Germans. And, of course, one game is just one game — small sample size and all that. True on both counts.
Even allowing for cautious context, RNH’s performance between linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Mark Scheifele stood out. Five points is five points. Then, there’s the way RNH dominated the Germans on the dot, which is likely more noteworthy.
Nugent-Hopkins won 11 of 18 face-offs he took in Ufa. If there was a weakness in his game during his rookie NHL season with the Oilers, it came in the face-off circles, where RNH was an underwhelming 37.5 per cent. It’s a component of his game RNH has to be better at and one he has already said he is concentrating on.
The early returns are good. Very good. We’ll get another look Friday, when Nugent-Hopkins and Team Canada face Slovakia.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.