It was billed, unofficially, as the “Jack Eichel Showcase”, and the third annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game certainly was that, plus a whole lot more.
Particularly for the blue-shirted Team (Mike) Grier, who got two goals from Jeremy Bracco (Freeport, N.Y./U.S. National Under-18 Team) and a goal and an assist from Alec Baer (St. Louis Park, Minn.) to take a 6-3 win over Team (Ed) Olczyk, at the First Niagara Center.
It was played before a crowd of 7,310, a record for the event's short history, and included more than 200 NHL scouts and personnel.
But to the players who were being eyeballed, the game itself quickly became the focus.
“That was the message from Coach Grier, early,” said Bracco, who is a Boston College commit. “He told us to go out and play (our) game, and work for each other. Everybody will look better if we win and play for each other.”
“Halfway through the first period we got the butterflies out of our stomachs, ” said Jordan Greenway (Canton, N.Y.), a Boston University commit. "In the second and third, we started getting everything going.”
The opening period remained scoreless, although it took a great save at each end to keep it that way.
Baer nearly put Team Grier ahead at 12:04 of that stanza, when he rolled in on a short-handed breakaway, only to be stopped cold by Team Olczyk starting goalie Mike Lackey (Washington, D.C./U.S. National Under-18 Team).
Baer tried to tuck the puck inside the left post, but Lackey, stuck out his right toe to deny him.
“I got a break on the back door,” said Baer, “and the goalie made a great save. I wanted to put it behind me and try to get another (chance).”
With 1:18 left in the period, Team Olczyk's Paul Bittner (Crookston, Minn.), nearly cashed in a feed from Grant Gabriele (Brighton, Mich./U.S. National Under-18 Team), but Team Grier starter Luke Opilka (Effingham, Ill./U.S. National Under-18 Team) made the stop.
Baer finally opened the scoring at 5:35 of the second, when he redirected Ryan Smith's (Atlanta, Ga./Green Bay Gamblers) left point shot past Lackey.
“Smith came up to the circle,” Baer said. “I was calling for it and he put it right on my stick. I put it in. I definitely had a lot of time to do what I had to do to put it in.”
That goal was answered at 6:58 by Brendan Warren (Carleton, Mich./U.S. National Under-18 Team), who tied the game 1-1 from a goal-mouth scramble.
Bracco restored the Team Grier lead, 2-1, at 13:10 with his first of the night, with an assist from Eichel.
Karch Bachman (Wolcottville, Ind./Culver Military Academy) made it 3-1 for Team Grier at 14:27, but Tom Novak (River Falls, Wis./Waterloo Black Hawks) brought Team Olczyk back to within a goal on a power play, the only one converted by either side, with 3:16 left in the second.
Team Olczyk kept things close, but were unable to get another tying marker.
“We had enough chances to score goals,” said Team Olczyk defenseman Joe Cecconi (Muskegon Lumberjacks), who hails from nearby Youngstown, New York. “But we just didn't get the bounce, here and there. No one gave up.”
Matters remained close until 11:13, when Eichel made it 4-2 on a nifty set up by Greenway from the left corner.
Greenway found Eichel alone in the slot, and Eichel deked Team Olczyk goalie Ryan Larkin (Clarkston, Mich./Cedar Rapids RoughRiders) before beating him on the short side.
“(Greenway) did all the work, to be honest,” said Eichel, a right-handed shot. “It was in my skate and I got it to my stick and tried to get a shot on goal. I was moving to my left and was hoping the goalie would move with me and maybe get him to go back the way he came.”
Mission accomplished. It was one for the highlight reels, and likely gave paying customers and scouts alike what they came to see.
“It was the first game I'd played in while,” said Eichel, who took part in exhibitions against Finland and Sweden at USA Hockey's U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, New York, early last month. “It took a while to get my feet under me. I was just excited to be playing again. Hockey's a fun game and I was enjoying it.”
The Team Grier lead swelled to 6-2 after late goals by Bracco and Connor Moynihan (Windham, N.H.), before Team Olczyk's Tanner Laczynski (Shorewood, Ill./Chicago Steel) closed the scoring at 19:08, making the final score 6-3.