Buffalo played host to an impressive array of draft eligible prospects last week including a pair of players expected to be picked in the top-five.
Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin headlined the 2014 CCM All-American Top Prospects game as the city of Buffalo and First Niagara Center played host to the event for the second time. The game will remain in Buffalo again next season as well.
A light crowd took in the game as many seats were left empty despite the Sabres distributing tickets to season ticket holders this year. Despite the presence of the draft’s second most sought after player (and the third depending who you ask) marketing for the event was light and the crowd reflected that. However, the hockey didn’t disappoint.
Eichel was dynamic throughout the game and created opportunities from puck drop. He finished the night as the game’s MVP after finishing with a goal and an assist. It was the goaltenders who stole the show to start. Luke Opilka and Mike Lackey were phenomenal through the first 20 minutes as they consistently turned away high-quality chances. As the pair made the first period a goaltending duel, Teams Olczyk and Grier made the final 40 minutes a shootout. Alec Baer finally broke the scoreless tie just five minutes into the second period and Brendan Warren answered for Team Olczyk just over a minute later.
Baer and Warren’s tallies would be the only goals surrendered by Opilka and Lackey as they gave way to Ryan Bednard and Ryan Larkin midway through the second. The cold goaltenders didn’t have much time to settle in as Eichel combined with Jeremy Bracco for a pretty goal midway through the period. Karch Bachman would add another tally for Team Grier while Tom Novak scored for Team Olczyk to bring the score to 3-2 after the second.
Eichel would eventually register the game winning goal as three third period tallies from Team Grier iced the victory. Eichel and Bracco each had two points and Eichel’s game winner and dynamic play helped preserve MVP honors.
Next for this group of players will be an important year with their respective clubs. Many will be positioning themselves for spots on the US World Junior Championship roster as they work through their season in junior or NCAA.
For Buffalo, their relationship with USA Hockey continues to blossom. HARBORCETNER is set to host the NHL Combine and will most certainly hold most, if not all of next year’s All-American Prospects Game participants. The next US bid for the World Junior Championships will likely see Buffalo as the host yet again as the city’s proximity to Canada and love of hockey helped draw record crowds in 2011. Another key will be ensuring next year’s event sees a better turnout.
Unfortunately the Sabres didn’t do too much public outreach for the event as it is truly a USA Hockey property. However, the Sabres had an opportunity to shout from the rooftops that two of the draft’s top three prospects were going to be playing against each other at First Niagara Center. The team’s president often preaches about the hockey IQ in Buffalo and this is the type of game that not only allows the region to show off that supposed IQ, but to grow it as well.
This is also an issue that lies with the game itself. It’s a very new event without the name recognition or prestige of the CHL Top Prospects game. While this year’s game boasted a pair of lottery picks, that isn’t the case each and every year. USA Hockey and their respective hosts need to continue to promote the fact that there are elite players playing each year to ensure that American hockey fans take notice of this very cool event. Perhaps we are still a few years off from seeing arenas with more fans than empty seats, but the process is certainly in motion.
One thing is for sure, the on-ice product in each event has been spectacular and that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.