Of the eight teams participating in the 3-on-3 Tournament at First Niagara Center on Sunday afternoon, the squad dressed in navy blue might not have been anyone’s first pick to win it all.
Much attention was certainly directed at prospects Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, playing for the White and Gold teams, respectively, and the best team for much of the tournament was Justin Bailey’s Royal Blue.
Perhaps the only people in the building who expected the navy team to win it all were its own players: Evan Rodrigues, Daniel Catenacci, Matt Garbowsky, Josh Chapman and Joe Gatenby.
“Oh, I did right from the beginning,” Rodrigues said afterwards. “I came in, I was fist pumping when I saw my team. I actually played with Catenacci when I was younger, against and with him. We had a good squad and I was confident.”
Rodrigues and his team went 4-3 in the round robin portion of the tournament to earn the No. 4 seed in the single-elimination playoffs. They were first matched up with William Carrier’s Grey squad and won 1-0 on a Garbowsky goal in a shootout. They then beat Bailey and Team Royal 1-0 in the semi-final, again on a Garbowsky goal. But this time, he was set up by Rodrigues in regulation.
However, it was neither Garbowsky nor Rodrigues who would propel Team Navy past the Green team in the championship match. In a scoreless tie with less than a minute to play when defenseman Josh Chapman, best known throughout camp for fighting Justin Kea in the Blue & Gold Scrimmage, found himself alone with the puck breaking towards the net.
Chapman delivered the game-winning goal, earning the French Connection Trophy for his team in a fashion that even Rodrigues couldn’t have predicted.
“I gotta say I didn’t [have Chapman with the winner],” Rodrigues said, laughing. “Guys were actually joking after we came back from the locker room. Someone asked him how many goals he scored this year and he said ‘None.’ He said it was the biggest goal of his career.
“It was all fun and games. It was a great time today and we were all out there just obviously working hard, but having a little bit of fun. It was a good end to the week.”
Chapman had a smile on his face that stretched from ear to ear.
“I’m not much of a goal scorer, that’s for sure, but I pride myself on other spots in the game like my physical play and stuff like that,” Chapman said. “I was kind of lucky. I had a horseshoe behind me, I’d say. It was good to get that game-winner and the guys had a couple laughs about it so I’ll take it.”
While the players certainly had fun throughout the tournament, it doesn’t mean they were taking it lightly.
After his team started 0-2 on the day, Jack Eichel helped lead Team White to the No. 2 playoff seed by stringing off a series of consecutive wins. He dazzled fans with his slick passing and puck handling along the way. One of his shots even went through the net, although it may have had some help.
“That was the second time this week that kinda that same spot had ripped,” Eichel said. “I think the netting was a little bit loose.”
Eichel’s team played their way into the semi-final against the Team Green and trailed 1-0 in the game’s final minutes. It was in that moment when Sabres general manager Tim Murray noticed a competitive fire his star prospect.
“If you watched him at the end of his last go there, there was 41 seconds left and he demanded a change with somebody,” Murray said. “Then he pressured the guy right at the blue line, he took the puck and he said ‘White Puck,’ and he takes it in on the breakaway and he didn’t score. That’s a competitive thing that you can take out of something like this. He was pissed off that he lost and that’s what we want.”
“A little bit bummed we lost there,” Eichel admitted afterwards. “Coach kept calling ‘Green’ for all of the possessions, I was a little mad. But yeah, you want to win that just like you want to win everything else and I was mad when we lost; I think anyone should be.”
Murray said that the competitiveness of the Sabres young players, which had been visible all throughout the week at Development Camp, was visible in the locker room after the tournament, too.
“I said, ‘Who’s on Blue?’ and there was a group of about four of them there. About four hands went up and they whooped and hollered and they’re going to give it to their Buffalo Sabres teammates for at least the next half hour today – if not longer,” Murray said. “That’s why we have a trophy and that’s why it’s competitive.”