FOR FLYERS PROSPECT Shayne Gostisbehere, the World Junior Championships have served as a coming-out party.

That's saying something, since Gostisbehere already helped carry Union College to the NCAA's Frozen Four last April as a freshman, just 2 months before being nabbed by the Flyers in the third round (78th overall) of the draft.

"I think it's safe to say that Team USA probably didn't know that much about him before their evaluation camp in Lake Placid," Flyers director of hockey operations Chris Pryor said via phone Saturday from Russia, where he traveled to watch Gostisbehere. "He's carried the momentum from last year, and even our development camp, right into this season. Shayne has grabbed ahold of the moment."

Gostisbehere, 19, has quarterbacked Team USA's power play while anchoring the second defensive pairing with Jacob Trouba, selected ninth overall by Winnipeg.

The United States fell to Canada, 2-1, on Sunday in Ufa, Russia, to force a New Year's Eve showdown with Slovakia for the right to advance to the medal round. That game was to be shown live Monday morning (5 a.m.) on NHL Network, with replays throughout the day.

Gostisbehere collected a goal in the United States' rout of Germany to open the tournament. He also netted the overtime winner against Sweden in a pre-tournament exhibition game in Finland last week.

The Margate, Fla., native - who grew up in the Fort Lauderdale suburb less than 30 minutes away from the home of the Florida Panthers - always has been noted for his offensive prowess. He has posted 13 points in the first 14 games of his sophomore season, leaving him just outside the top 50 scorers nationally (including forwards), despite missing five games to be with Team USA.

Gostisbehere (pronounced GOSS-tiss-bear) has turned heads at this heavily scouted tournament with his defensive play.

"I'm glad that I'm finally getting recognized for my defensive play," Gostisbehere told the Daily News in a phone interview Saturday from Russia. "It's something that I've worked a lot on and taken a lot of pride in. I owe a lot of that to my coaches at Union.

"In all honestly, we don't even work on my offense at Union. All we focus on is defense and my defensive-zone play, especially down low. I'm not the biggest guy, so I've learned that I need to outsmart forwards. I can't go into a corner trying to kill someone.

"My stick has to be active and I need to be in a strong position."

Gostisbehere is listed at just 5-11 and 170 pounds on Union's website. Since leaving the Flyers' prospect camp in July, he has kept in regular communication with Flyers director of player development Ian Laperriere.

"Shayne knows he is never going to be a big man," Pryor said. "He is getting better and better and compensating for his lack of size. His hands and his heads are his biggest assets, and he is using them well."

Pryor credited the work of Flyers scout John Riley, keeping close tabs on Gostisbehere and Union throughout last season before they took a chance on him in the third round. Gostisbehere skates with Greg Coburn, the younger brother of Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn, at Union.

Gostisbehere is the first player in the history of Union College to represent the United States at the world's premier under-20 championship. He is also the Flyers' first draft pick since James van Riemsdyk (2007) to skate in the tournament after being drafted.

Pryor said an additional 12 to 15 underage players from this tournament could be drafted early next June.

While he may still be a couple years away from making an impact at the NHL level, Gostisbehere is helping change the reputation of a depleted Flyers' prospect system, which was recently ranked last among all NHL franchises by Hockey's Future. He has surprised the U.S. coaching staff at every turn - surviving every roster cut from 46 to 34 to 26 to 23 with relative ease.

For now, Gostisbehere is just trying to get used to the minus-30 degree temperatures in Russia.

"I'm in a new country, a place I've never been with food I've never eaten, and I get to hang with the best players in the world," Gostisbehere said. "This has been a great year for my hockey career. Sometimes it's good to take a step back and just listen to the national anthem after games. I'm playing for my country."

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