We interrupt The Jack Eichel Show to introduce to you to the next wave of great American goaltenders.
In a game billed as an offensive showcase, Luke Opilka and Michael Lackey stole the early spotlight from the possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by shutting the door on opposing forwards at the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
Lackey, a native of Washington, D.C., and Opilka of St. Louis brought their A games to Buffalo, turning aside 15 and 22 shots, respectively, during their time between the pipes.
“I think all four goaltenders played incredible,” said head coach Eddie Olczyk, whose team came up on the short end of a 6-3 outcome in front of an announced crowd of 7,310.
“I liked our play a lot in the first period. We really hemmed them in their own zone, worked their defensemen and created a bunch of chances, but when the goaltending is that good you have to find a way to put the puck in the back of the net.”
For their part, both goalies who are currently playing at the National Team Development Program, were as quick to deflect any praise as they were to turn aside opposition shots. Playing at the NTDP has allowed both goaltenders to gain the confidence to stare down some of the game’s most offensively gifted players.
“Obviously we have some of the best forwards in the country, so going up against them in practice really helps you in a game,” said Lackey, who is committed to attend Harvard University next season.
“When you’re going up against someone who doesn’t have the same speed and accuracy it helps a little bit.”
When the goals did come, they came in bunches. Early in the second period, Alec Baer potted a seeing-eye pass from Ryan Smith to give Team Grier a 1-0 lead, before Brendan Warren responded for Team Olczyk a little more than a minute later cashing in on a goalmouth scramble.
Later in the middle frame, Jeremy Bracco and Karch Bachman scored 77 seconds apart to lift Team Grier to a 3-1 lead before Tom Novak’s power-play goal narrowed the lead before the end of the period.
“The goaltenders were unbelievable out there making all those diving saves in the first period,” said Kyle Connor, one of nine A-rated players participating in the game.
“The second period it kind of opened up a little bit and I think everyone started getting more comfortable with each other as the game went on.”
As in often the case in these types of showcase events, the offensive cream eventually rose to the top in the third period. Mostly kept down through the first 40 minutes, Eichel showed the offensive skill that has most NHL scouts drooling, converting a Jordan Greenway pass from the corner, giving Boston University fans a sign of what’s to come.
Eichel is currently a freshman with the Terriers, while Greenway will head to Beantown next year after wrapping up his career with the NTDP.
“We were talking about that on the bench. I’m excited for him to come to BU,” said Eichel, who was named the Player of the Game.
“He did all the work to be honest. I came into the high slot and saw the puck come squirting out and he made a great play along the wall and got the puck to me and I was able to get the puck out of my skates and onto my stick and I managed to get it to squeak through.”
With much of the attention of the week focused on Eichel, the 17-year-old phenom didn’t disappoint, living up the advance billing with his play on the ice and his demeanor in the face of so much media attention.
“It’s just part of this experience. I try not to think about it. It is what it is,” the North Chelmsford, Mass., native said. “The 2015 NHL Draft is in June and we’re only in September. I’m just trying to keep enjoying myself and keep getting better.”
Ultimately the game was the big winner. In only its third year, the All-American Prospects Game has quickly turned into a must-see event on the NHL scouting calendar.
“I think it’s a great showcase. You see the talent out there and you can put it up against any country in the world,” said head coach Mike Grier, who welcomed his homecoming to the town where he spent four years of his NHL career.
“We’re right there to be able to compete with anybody.”