With 15 minutes gone in the inaugural USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, the exhibition looked headed for a blowout. The line of A.J. Michaelson, Austin Farley and Luke Johnson had given the West a 2-0 lead as the East struggled to mount anything resembling an attack.
However, it wouldn't take long for that narrative to take a turn.
With less than two minutes to go in the first, Indiana Ice forward Robbie Baillargeon intercepted a pass at the blue line, skated in on goal, pulled the puck around a poke check attempt by Stephon Williams and finished with aplomb on the backhand.
Four minutes into the second period, Baillargeon scored again -- this time on a give-and-go with Jordan Masters -- to tie the game 2-2. Those goals gave his side the boost it needed as the East went on to win 5-3.
"To be out there with the best players in your age group, to do what I did and get a couple goals there definitely helped my confidence out a lot," Baillargeon said. "I was able to bring that back to Indy and it carried over. It helped me start to come up big in those types of situations."
The two goals, especially the first -- a spectacular, savvy solo effort -- were just a snippet of his ever-expanding portfolio. Baillargeon very much still is developing -- he won’t start college, at Boston University, until the fall of 2013 -- but his talents were enough for NHL Central Scouting to rank him No. 50 among North American skaters heading into the 2012 NHL Draft.
Gary Eggleston, a New England-based scout with NHL Central Scouting, has been tracking Baillargeon's progress since his prep days at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass. He told NHL.com that while Baillargeon has struggled at times with the physicality of the USHL, he has adapted well to his new surroundings.
"He had a very good record while playing at Cushing Academy in Massachusetts prior going to the USHL," Eggleston said. "I was a little concerned about his going [to Indiana], as far as adapting physically and whether he had the maturity to play the kind game expected of him, but I think he's done all of that. I think if you look at the stats, he's probably averaged a point a game all season."
He was close to that level, finishing with 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) in 54 games. The decision to leave New England took him "all summer to decide," but ultimately Baillargeon felt he needed to challenge himself.
"It was definitely a hard decision," Baillargeon said. "But I finally came down that it would be the best way to prepare for college -- and also to show the NHL scouts what I was able to do in my draft year."
While Baillargeon always has been a creative and lethal player on the attack -- he had 30 goals and 34 assists in 30 games in 2010-11 at Cushing -- his thin, 6-foot frame underwent a transformation in Indianapolis under conditioning coach Ron Gay.
"He first came in with not a lot of body structure," Gay told NHL.com. "We started adding some strength to his core, upper-body and leg-wise. We worked on those things for a full season to make sure his body was ready to take the impact for the amount of games he would be playing."
Gay and Eggleston agree that Baillargeon isn't afraid of contact.
"He's a hard-nosed kid, not afraid to go into the corners," Gay said.
Added Eggleston: "Although he's a little physically immature, he's still the kind of kid that goes straight line to the puck. He can win the puck battles from the corners."
Thanks in part to Gay's workout plan, Baillargeon is up to 175 pounds. He missed only six games during the season and actually increased his production in the postseason. Skating on the top line with Daniil Tarasov and Sean Kuraly, Baillargeon had four goals and two assists in six playoff games.
"I think for me, [the playoff success] came down to a will to win," Baillargeon said. "I wanted to win, and I would do whatever I could to help my team.”
After a season spent adapting to the USHL, Baillargeon will be back in Indiana as one of the team's leaders in 2012-13. By his count, five of the Ice's top six scorers -- Baillargeon finished third in points, behind Tarasov and Kuraly -- will be leaving Indiana this summer. But he's not worried, because it's a situation he's been in before.
"After my first year at Cushing, we lost two of our top forwards and I kind of took that as, 'I need to be a leader, I need to step up, I want to be the guy you can count on in big situations,'" Baillargeon said. "We've definitely lost big players, so next year I'm going to have to step up like that."
Gay and the rest of the Ice coaching staff are glad he's coming back.
"He's a good kid, responsive to everything," Gay said. "He does whatever you want him to do, and he sees it work so he wants to do more of it. He wants to be a hockey player -- that's what he wants to be."
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