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Ryan Poehling stayed true to his strengths in his greatest career performance

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Poehling took his game to its very peak on Saturday night.

Sweden v United States - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

What is your identity?

This is a common question asked in player interviews. Scouts and management personnel want to know what kind of players they deal with, and if those players themselves know their game, and how they can contribute to a team.

Development is working on weaknesses, but, more importantly, honing and showing strengths. Performing at the next level is often done through using those strengths to your advantage; defining a role for yourself and maximizing your efficacy in a specific duty.

At times, Ryan Poehling got lost trying to add to his game in the first half of his season. Yes, he improved on his point pace, but he wasn’t the consistently impactful player that stood out on the ice in his sophomore season. Instead, he was very often out there taking on multiple opponents off the rush, aggressively attacking defensive formations, often with little success.

The St. Cloud State University centre is not a high-event, flashy dangler who finds success by threading the puck through multiple sticks and skates, reaching the slot to beat the goalie with a wicked shot. He is not a player who can pull off a backhand toe drag between his skates, and come out behind the defender to cut to the net. He is not a one-man attack.

Poehling is all about making smart choices: advancing the play in a controlled way, transforming defence into offence, and using his great vision to incorporate teammates to create goals.

His game with Team USA against Sweden was a perfect showcase of what Poehling, at the top of his game, can bring to a team. Despite a lacklustre performance from USA in the first 50 minutes of the game, the Habs’ first-rounder still had himself a night. He was one of, if not the best forwards on the ice for the Americans despite their struggles.

He killed a minute of a 5-on-3 in the first period with a strong effort, ultimately clearing the puck out of the zone with a great read, jumping on the pointman to pressure when he accurately sensed a loss of puck control.

In the second period, he created offence by coming very low to support his team’s inconsistent breakouts and getting the puck out himself. Plus, he showed his ability to steal pucks on the forecheck and extend the presence of his team in the offensive zone with a solid cycle game, also driving the net at the right times to try and tip pucks in.

And, finally, in the third period, Poehling found his top gear.

We have been talking a lot about the need for him to dominate offensively in this tournament, as a returning player and one of the older ones at the event. The World Junior Hockey Championship is a stage Poehling should shine bright on if he is to become an impact player at the next levels.

The last 10 minutes of the game were where he did just that.

It started with an assist on Team USA’s first goal. Poehling distributed the puck in the neutral zone to help his team get across the offensive blue line on the power play. Then, a couple of minutes later, he pressured Sweden on the backcheck, stole the puck — not once but twice — and set up Oliver Wahlstrom on a rush the other way. Wahlstrom missed, but made up for it a shift later by assisting on Poehling’s first goal. The Habs’ centre prospect stood on the far post and slammed the puck in.

With two minutes left, he continued his work. He received the puck in between blue lines and entered the zone skating on an arc to gain speed, and once again found a teammate to give him a shooting chance from the slot.

With 40 seconds left, and an empty net for an extra attacker, Poehling rushed the net and found a rebound for his second goal. With 30 seconds left, he pressured one of Sweden’s defenders, caused a turnover, and Oliver Wahlstrom (yet again) sprung him for a chance alone with the goalie. Poehling, with a beautiful release, beat the netminder above his right shoulder to complete the comeback.

Solid in-zone defence, rush offence, good forechecking pressure, vision, playmaking abilities, finding quiet spots around the net, and driving to it at the right time; those are all solid elements of Poehling’s play that he has shown through the years. This is his identity as a player. And this is how he found his success.

There are still things he can work on. Shooting more is still one of them — oddly enough, Poehling’s goals were his only shots in that game — but, if anything, he showed that he has a weapon of a shot, and can pull it off when needed, as he did on the game-tying goal.

This game against Sweden was a memorable performance for the prospect. It will probably make a lasting impression on many, and raise the expectations for the 2017 first-rounder, as Poehling has shown that he has it in him to be a game-changer.