Alex Nedeljkovic is back from Finland and the 2016 World Junior Championship, back in net for the Niagara IceDogs.
Nedeljkovic returned with a bronze medal, not the one Team USA wanted but a medal the goalie said he is proud to have.
“It was pretty cool, a lot of fun, exciting, the most memorable thing in my life so far,” he said Saturday of the World Juniors. “Like everybody else we wanted the gold. We weren’t able to win it and got the bronze, but we deserved a medal and we earned it.”
Nedeljkovic, who turned 20 on Thursday, was the No. 1 goalie for the U.S., and the Canes prospect — a second-round pick in 2014, 37th overall — finished the World Juniors with a 1.66 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. He was named one of Team USA’s top three stars along with forward Auston Matthews and defenseman Zach Werenski.
The U.S., beaten 1-0 by Sweden in the preliminary round, routed the Swedes 8-3 in the bronze medal game. But Russia again proved to be the nemesis for Team USA in the World Juniors, winning 2-1 in the semifinals to again oust the Americans despite 31 saves from Nedeljkovic.
“It was a good game, start to finish,” Nedeljkovic said. “The Russians stick to their game and never try something different. They play their game and if it works, it works.
“They had a strong team, a talented team. They got good goaltending that game and took advantage of their chances. It was frustrating.”
But Nedeljkovic was proud of the way Team USA quickly rebounded, easily topping the Swedes for the bronze.
“To come back from a tough loss 24 hours later, to have the energy, juice, motivation and excitement we had and play one of our best games says a lot about our team,” he said.
Team USA may have been the favorite for the gold had the Canes’ Noah Hanifin, Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings been able to compete for the U.S. All stayed put with their respective NHL teams.
“It’s easy to say what could have happened if we had this guy, if we had that guy,” Nedeljkovic said. “But if we had brought in a high-caliber player like that (late), what would it do to the chemistry of the team or the way we jelled?
“Would we have liked to have had talent like Noah and Eickel and Larkin? Absolutely. But they weren’t available and we had group that jelled well, a close group where everyone knew their roles.”
The U.S. never faced Finland, which won the gold on Kasperi Kapanen’s overtime goal against Russia. Forward Sebastian Aho, a second-round pick by the Canes in the 2015 draft, was one of the Finnish stars and his line with Jesse Puljujärvi and Patrik Laine was the best in the World Juniors.
“We played them in an exhibition game and I also got to see (Aho) play a few games in Finland,” Nedeljkovic said. “He’s a very skilled, very exciting player. And that line was always doing something special or crazy good.”
With the World Juniors over, Nedeljkovic returned to the IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League. The Parma, Ohio, native underwent surgery in May for a labrum tear in his hip and had a slow start to his junior season, but was traded by the Flint Firebirds — along with defenseman Josh Wesley, another Canes prospect — to the IceDogs in December.
Nedejkovic, listed at 6-0 and 190 pounds, has an 11-8-2 record, with a 3.00 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 22 games this season. He was in net Friday in a 3-1 win over the Saginaw Spirit, and is 3-1 with a 1.50 GAA and .945 save percentage for Niagara.
“I got back in the swing of things and was playing my best hockey just before leaving for the U.S. camp,” he said. “I think that showed in the tournament. I thought I played my best hockey in a long time and just want to keep getting better.”
Nedejkovic joined the Florida Everblades of the ECHL at the end of last season, playing three games and calling it a “good learning experience.”
“You see what players go through in their every-day life at the pro level and it makes you want to work even harder,” he said. “There are a lot of good goalies in the (Carolina) organization, but I want to keep doing well this season and hopefully have a good showing at training camp next year that puts me in the best situation possible.”