But it didn’t have to be. The Prospects Challenge was never about wins and losses. It was, first and foremost, about evaluation. It was about understanding what it takes to compete at the NHL level.
And regardless of Monday night’s result, the players, the coaches and the management still got exactly what they were looking for.
“It’s always a really healthy exercise for the kids, for the most part, to play against their peers before they move on to main camp — a much bigger test,” said Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney following a 3-2 overtime loss to the Sabres at the First Niagara Center. “Even if it’s practice, they’ll understand what the next level is, and for a lot of them, that’s a big jump.”
Still, despite the challenges this tournament presented, the Bruins debuted a host of players that rose above. There was Frank Vatrano, who made it clear over the last two days that he is gunning for a spot on the Bruins roster.
After scoring twice against New Jersey on Sunday night — once to tie the game, and once to deliver the win in overtime — Vatrano was right back at it again on Monday night. In the midst of Boston’s first power play of the game, Vatrano took a cross-crease feed from Austin Czarnik and buried it to put the B’s on the board about seven minutes into the game.
Vatrano was one of a few players on this year’s rookie camp roster who spent a few games with Providence at the end of last season. By the end of this tournament, it was abundantly clear that all three of those players — Czarnik and Linus Arnesson, too — benefitted tremendously from their brief pit-stops in the AHL.
“[Vatrano is] a player that benefited from coming into Providence last year,” Sweeney said. “[He] practiced a lot. Frank’s put in a lot of work off the ice, and that’s showing up in his play now, and that’s a credit to him.
“Now, he needs to take it on to main camp and continue with that same trajectory. Hopefully, he gets where he wants to go. It’s another step for him, another test for everybody, but he’s done well so far.”
Czarnik, too, emerged during this tournament. Centering Boston’s top line in both games, he finished with three assists, two of which came on Monday night and two of which were helpers on Vatrano’s goals.
Clearly, there was some chemistry there.
“Me and Frankie had some chemistry coming into it, so that really helped out, and obviously [Justin] Hickman’s a big body, so he got in there and banged some guys around, got some pucks,” Czarnik said. “So overall, pretty happy with how I did and how we did as a team.
“I would say [the chemistry] definitely started in practice, getting a feel for each other and that type of thing. [Vatrano’s] the goal scorer, I’m the passer, so that’s what I try to do — give him the puck, give him and Hicks the puck, and see how it goes.”
Sweeney had been keeping close tabs on Czarnik since long before the Miami University product inked his entry-level deal with the B’s in April. During the course of this tournament, the undersized forward showed precisely the kind of vision — and energy — he can bring.
“I’ve watched Austin for a while, and I’ve appreciated his ability to make plays,” Sweeney said. “[He] has courage at his size; understands that he’s, at times, at a disadvantage defensively when he doesn’t have the puck, but he’ll get a better feel for where he can stick his nose in because he’s more than willing to.
“At times, you may bite off a little more than you can chew — we’ve talked a little bit about that — but the kid makes plays, and he’s got a lot of courage at his size.”
Later in the first period, Arnesson did his damage. The Swede also joined the P-Bruins last year and played in 11 games, getting a strong feel for the professional North American game. Following Sunday’s game against New Jersey, Head Coach Bruce Cassidy called him the best defenseman on the ice, and on Monday, Arnesson was right up there again.
This time, he made his presence known on the scoresheet as well, netting a laser from the high slot that was in the back of the net before Sabres goalie C.J. Motte even saw it.
It marked Arnesson’s second point of the game after assisting on Vatrano’s snipe.
“It felt really good, actually — I felt like scoring, so I did,” Arnesson said with a smile. “It was a good time to score — we went up 2-0, so had a little breathing [room] there.”
With the offense buzzing, Zane McIntyre held strong between the pipes, posting a shutout until just two minutes remained in the second frame. Then, Vaclav Karabacek pulled the Sabres within one.
In the end, Jack Eichel keyed Buffalo’s comeback, assisting on Brycen Martin’s tying goal before netting the game-winner in the waning seconds of overtime. But that ending was in no way indicative of McIntyre’s performance, which was downright dominant at times. He saw the puck well through traffic, he moved well across the crease and he was particularly impressive in a second period in which the Sabres outshot Boston 18-6.
No, the end result wasn’t what he wanted in his first start in the Spoked-B. But as teammate Czarnik said, somebody has to lose.
“Our guys were doing their job, letting me see the puck and kind of going from there,” McIntyre said. “Just hats off to those guys and our D-men. We had a lot of good communication tonight, whether it was exchanges and stuff through tonight, and definitely, it was a move forward. Some good things going in the right way, I guess.”
McIntyre’s effort certainly wasn’t lost on his teammates.
“He was unbelievable tonight,” Czarnik said. “They had a lot of opportunities, and he was able to stop pretty much all of them, so I was very happy for him, very proud for him, and looking forward to this year with him.”
Arnesson said it’s a shame the tournament only lasted two games, and he’s right. The chemistry was just starting to form, the pieces were just starting to click. The good news is, during the upcoming season, plenty of these players could have the opportunity to continue building upon what has developed over the course of the last several days at rookie camp.
For each one of them, this was only the beginning.
“I think right at the start, we were pretty good — just needed a game to get under us, and I think we played pretty well all night,” Czarnik said. “We got a little tired at the end, where they capitalized on some opportunities, but overall, I think it was a well-done job by us, and someone has to win.”