In a game showcasing the evolution of American hockey talent, Jack Eichel made his presence felt from the opening faceoff. Tabbed as the top US-born prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft, Eichel had two points and was named Player of the Game as Team Grier defeated Team Olczyk 6-3 on Thursday at First Niagara Center in the third annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
Team Grier’s top line of Eichel, Jordan Greenway and Jeremy Bracco led the way in the victory, as each recorded two points in the win. Head coach Mike Grier had high praise for the play of his top line.
“I thought Eichel’s line played well,” he said. “Greenway made a lot of the goals happen. He probably won’t get some of the credit, but he did a lot of the dirty work with forechecking and getting the puck out. Bracco was excellent, he’s one of those guys that knows how to slow things down and make plays happen.”
The line of Brendan Warren, Colin White and Christian Fischer set the bar for Team Olczyk in a losing effort, creating the vast majority of their team’s scoring chances. That included the team’s first goal from Warren, who followed up on the play after he and White were robbed by goaltender Luke Opilka on a 2-on-1 opportunity.
While his stat line may not reflect it, defenseman Noah Hanifin was one of the brightest stars on Team Olczyk. His play in this game garnered the respect of his victorious opponents, including a potential future college teammate.
“He’s obviously a tremendous player,” Bracco said of Hanifin’s play. “He’s going to have a great year this year [at Boston College].”
After a scoreless first period, Team Grier’s Alec Baer found the back of the net just over five minutes into the second.
“Smith just came up at the circle and I was calling for it,” Baer said. “He put it right on my stick, and I just deflected it in.
That line scored another big goal that gave Team Grier a 4-2 lead that really established momentum for the rest of the game. After Baer deflected a shot from Brandon Carlo wide of the net, Karch Bachman picked up the puck and slid it past an outstretched Ryan Larkin.
That goal capped off an effort where Team Grier’s third line set the tempo for the entire contest.
“The Baer-Smith-Bachman line, I thought they kind of got us going,” Grier said. “A little bit on the smaller side compared to most guys, but they really used their speed and played good hockey.”
Demonstrating his ability to create opportunities for his linemates, Eichel’s second-period assist to Bracco showed off his poise and ability to read the entire ice surface.
Eichel added his second point with a third-period goal. After two Team Olczyk defenders converged on Greenway in the corner, he was able to squirt the puck to the slot where a wide-open Eichel patiently zipped a forehand shot into the net.
“He did all the work, to be honest,” Eichel said, deferring honor on the goal to Greenway. “It just came into the high slot. I saw the puck kind of squirt out, and he made a great play on the wall to get the puck out to me.”
Whether it was controlling the offense, anchoring the rush or killing penalties, Eichel was the best player on the ice throughout the night.
The experience was a beneficial one for Eichel, who spent a lot of time around the city of Buffalo in the days leading up to the tournament.
“Buffalo was great this week,” Eichel said. “A lot of good fans, and it was a great atmosphere [tonight].”
Team Grier’s line of Greenway, Eichel and Bracco featured three players committed to colleges in Boston. The Boston College-bound Bracco was stuck with the two Boston University guys for the majority of the contest.
“We were messing around a little bit because Jordan’s going to BU too so they were kind of giving it to me,” Bracco said. “It was a lot of fun, and it was a great game to play in.”
“[Bracco’s] at the NTDP for now, so he’s a good buddy of mine,” Eichel said.
Bracco still had ample Boston College company in this contest, as three other future Golden Eagles participated: defensemen Hanifin and Casey Fitzgerald, and forward Colin White. Hanifin will be enrolling a year ahead of the other three, but is encouraged by the bright future of the program.
“I’m really looking forward to playing for BC this year, I think we have a really good team,” Hanifin said.
THE GREAT WALL OF OPILKA
The brightest goaltending of the game undoubtedly came from Opilka, who opened the contest for Team Grier. Opilka turned away numerous breakaway chances, and even made a couple of consecutive sprawling saves on White and Warren in the first period.
The Missouri native was credited with 22 saves on 23 shots faced for his 30 minutes of playing time. The save total was briefly an All-American Prospects Game record, until Team Olczyk goaltender Ryan Larkin finished the night with 24 saves on 29 shots faced.
Playing with the United States NTDP Under-18 squad helps Opilka prepare for the highest competition in games such as this one.
“It definitely helps prepare me facing powerhouses such as Bracco, White and [2016 draft-eligible] Auston Matthews. The list goes on and on,” Opilka said. “Practices just prepare me more than normal.”