In the debut of the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, the United States' top junior league served up an instant classic.
Indiana Ice standout Robert Baillargeon scored two goals as and the East came away with a hard-fought 5-3 victory Tuesday at L.C. Walker Arena in Muskegon, Mich.
Baillargeon's Indiana teammate, goalie Jon Gillies, made 15 saves for the East team. Gillies is rated as the No. 4 goaltender -- and No. 1 U.S.-born -- in NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings of the top prospects for the 2012 NHL Draft.
The game featured 40 of the top players in the USHL, including 37 who are eligible for the 2012 Draft. Besides Baillargeon and Gillies, also in the game were Green Bay defenseman Jordan Schmaltz, No. 37 on Central Scouting's midterm rank of North American skaters; Muskegon forward Matthew DeBlouw (No. 43) and Fargo defenseman Brian Cooper (No. 51).
Players were picked for the game by USHL team general managers and NHL Central Scouting. More than 150 scouts from NHL teams were in attendance.
Also picked for the game were Dubuque forward Zemgus Girgensons and defenseman Mike Matheson, but both were forced to miss the game due to injury. Girgensons is No. 12 on Central Scouting's list, while Matheson is No. 29.
The game was a back-and-forth affair through 40 minutes, and the teams went into the second intermission knotted at 3-3. East coach Derek Lalonde said he was proud of the way his team responded.
"They really found a way to win," said Lalonde, whose Green Bay Gamblers lead the USHL with a 27-6-1 record. "They made a couple plays in the third. I was impressed with the pace of the game. We asked our boys to take this very seriously, and from the drop of the puck they certainly did that. They really embraced the team concept of it."
Jeff Kubiak -- a late addition as an injury replacement -- scored the game-winner at 7:24 of the third. Nicholas Schilkey, who also had a goal, picked up the puck at the blue line, dropped it to a teammate then got it back in the low slot. Schilkey whipped a backhand across the net, and it slipped through West goalie Jay Williams to Kubiak, who won't score many easier goals.
After a rocky start that saw the East concede two early goals to the dangerous West line of Austin Farley, A.J. Michaelson and Luke Johnson -- one of three 2013 draft-eligible players to participate -- Baillargeon steadied the East with back-to-back goals. He scored the first when he intercepted an ill-timed pass at the blue line, deked around West goalie Stephon Williams' poke-check and finished with his backhand.
Baillargeon notched his second when he combined with Jordan Masters, one of four skaters representing the hometown Muskegon Lumberjacks, at 4:07 of the second. After the pair were denied once on a 2-on-1, Masters got the puck back and slipped it to his linemate for the goal.
Baillargeon, a 6-foot, 175-pound center, has 11 goals and 20 assists in 31 games with the Ice this season.
"It was a great time. I've never been on the ice with that much talent before," Baillargeon said of the game. "It was a blast. Everyone has just so much skill."
If the game provided an opportunity for lesser-seen players to showcase their talent, Williams seized it with both hands. The Sioux Falls goalie -- No. 23 on Central Scouting's ranking of North American goalies -- made 25 saves on 27 shots in 30 minutes of action. Constantly under attack, Williams stopped everything that came his way except for Baillargeon. To put an exclamation mark on his performance, he robbed DeBlouw with a glove save on a point-blank shot just before being subbed.
"It's always tough to score on talented goalies," Baillargeon said of Williams. "He had a great game. You've got to make your move based off what he's doing. You've just got to find a way to put the puck in the net."
The Farley-Michaelson-Johnson line keyed the West to an early 2-0 lead. On the first, a nice passing play starting with Johnson unfolded as the puck moved up the ice to Farley. Farley flicked it to Michaelson, who finished it past East starting goalie Austin Lyon at 6:26 of the first.
Michaelson, a 6-foot, 183-pound center, is No. 83 on Central Scouting's list. He has 2 goals and 8 assists in 29 games with the Waterloo Black Hawks. Farley, a 5-8, 171-pound left wing, is No. 183. He's second in the USHL with 24 goals and 48 points.
Farley made it 2-0 on another nice rush by him and his linemates. Johnson held the puck up in the defensive zone before pushing up to Farley, who was hovering near the blue line. Farley sent it up toward the right circle, and Michaelson raced into the zone, picked it up and laid a cross near the top of the crease. Farley beat his defender on the give-and-go and poked it through Lyons and the left post.
"It was a great pass by Luke Johnson, and both defensemen kind of converged on me so I dumped it forward," Farley said of his strike. "Luckily, A.J. sprinted up and got it and I was able to finish it off."
At the 30-minute mark, the West goal introduced a new Williams (Jay) for an old (Stephon), and Jay Williams didn't have to wait long for some action. Off the faceoff that followed the goalie change, DeBlouw won the puck and pushed it to Robert Polesello, who left it for Schilkey for a one-time blast at 10:10 to give the East a 3-2 lead. The goal initially was waived off, but later officials determined the goal flew through the mesh netting, and the goal awarded to Schilkey.
The West was not done just yet. At 14:37, Justin Selman picked up a feed from Sioux Falls teammate Austyn Young, flew through the middle and drew a defenseman out wide. He attempted to dump it back in to the middle, but a deflection carried it past Gillies to retie the game at 3-3.
Young, a 6-1, 194-pound left wing, is No. 100 on Central Scouting's rankings. He has 6 goals and 8 assists in 28 games with the Sioux Falls Stampede.
"Our coach from Sioux Falls (Kevin Hartzell) has been telling us to put everything on net," said Selman, who is committed to the University of Michigan. "It was great to know that even though you're in the locker room with guys you compete against night in and night out, but having a few guys from your team helps you settle in."
Alex Kile -- ranked No. 82 by NHL Central Scouting and another future Wolverine -- provided some insurance for the East with 1:21 to play. On just the game's second power play, Kile caught up to a fantastic Chris Bradley lead pass and scored the game's final goal.
Baillargeon, a 2013 Boston University commit, said he found the game worthwhile as a USHL player.
"Everyone brings so much different talent to the table that you get to learn a lot out here," Baillargeon said. "And you get to take what they know and bring it back to your team, and show them what you've learned."