In the United States vs. Slovakia game, for the majority of his shifts, Ryan Poehling was the smartest player on the ice. He showed maturity, and that he has clear understanding of what is required from him in his every night role with Team USA.
True to his identity, he contributed to his line with two-way play, using his playmaking chops to orchestrate some good chances, and his ability to read the game to come-back to break opposing plays defensively.
One sequence illustrated the strength of his game and how it fits with Team USA.
Poehling is a centre at heart. Placed on the wing to boost the team’s top-6 with talent in the tournament, he still very much understands how he can help Josh Norris — his own centre — in his duties.
At the second period opening faceoff, Poehling jumped on a loose puck after a lost draw, tying the stick of the opposing winger trying to retrieve it. This way, he prevented Slovakia from gaining possession. The Slovakian defender came to his winger’s help, but this only served in creating a breakaway for Jason Robertson when Poehling found the puck, winning his two-on-one battle to spring his centre for a breakaway.
Robertson unfortunately missed his chance. And, after a short sequence in the offensive zone, the puck finally went to Slovakia. Without wasting a fraction of a second, Poehling pointed his skates down ice and backchecked. He read the situation, identified the passing lane, and extended his stick to cut it. The puck made contact with his blade and deflected safely to the corner.
Poehling’s effort to catch up to the 3-on-2 prevented Slovakia from gaining a lead earlier than they eventually did get one, but a shorthanded goal could have shifted momentum even more.
The opening game for Team USA was a typical performance for Poehling. He displayed the same elements of his play on the ice in Victoria as he does with the St. Cloud State Huskies. By now, the strengths of Poehling are known. There is no one questioning his defensive acumen or his ability to distribute the puck when he faces the play. What Poehling needs to show is an ability to turn it on and dominate offensively.
This event — attended by a lot of NHL scouts — will be an occasion for him to do just that against his own age group. Which in turn will give a good indication of his NHL readiness, where the prospect is in his development, and of his overall potential.
Since he was drafted, Poehling has never been confidently projected as a sure top-6 player. Showing that he can create scoring chances consistently for his team, and from different situations on the ice, from offensive rushes — where he usually excels — to the offensive zone cycle, will go a long way to erase the doubts.
In the NHL, the reduced space will certainly affect Poehling’s playmaking ability. Showing that he can handle back pressure in the defensive zone, and separate himself from that pressure is increasingly important.
In the Slovakia game, Poehling towered over many opposing players, which was a change from the NCAA and benefited his play in tight quarters, giving us an indication of what he might be able to pull off as he matures. He showed both good elements and the things he still has to work on against defensive pressure in the opposing ends.
Let’s look at one interesting sequence.
Poehling protected the puck well after retrieving it in the corner. He used his right outside edge to lean against the defender, backside out and knee extended to act as a shield against the stick of the opponent. This way, he created a pocket to handle the puck and drove in front of the opponent to separate from him.
Once he did that, however, he failed to look where the open space was, and turned back into pressure, almost losing the puck. So, he cut the other way. This time, he managed to find a teammate.
Poehling doesn’t have an explosive element out of his turn, and probably will never be a very quick skater. That means having a great awareness of his outlets then becomes really important for him — moving the puck quickly will be his best way to keep it in possession of his team. The fact that he corrected his first mistake, and orchestrated a good play that ultimately created a shot on net is a good sign regarding his ability to generate offence from the cycle in this tournament.
Poehling was also seen driving the net repetitively in this first game, putting his stick down as an option for tip-ins, which is something that could help him generate his fair share of goals for his line. That’s what he will have to do if he wants to help a team that didn’t look its best against Slovakia advance in the tournament.