There was a packed house at the Mystique Community Ice Center, home of the Dubuque Fighting Saints, for the 2015 USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. As each person attending the game entered the arena, they passed two massive posters of Zemgus Girgensons and Johnny Gaudreau. Both are playing in the NHL — Girgensons for the Buffalo Sabres, Gaudreau for the Calgary Flames — after a previous stop with the Fighting Saints.
They are the ones who made it.
The standing room only crowd of 3,021 was treated to high-flying action on the ice in eastern Iowa, but it was lopsided in the first period. Team East, which was highly favored by the crowd, scored five goals in rapid succession on Team West goaltender Ben Blacker. The East squad featured three players from the Fighting Saints: Seamus Malone, Dylan Gambrell and Blake Hillman.
“The presentation of this event was outstanding, right from start to finish,” said East head coach Jay Varaday, himself a former Fighting Saint, “Personally, it meant a lot. I got to see a lot of old faces.”
Kevin Conley opened up the scoring for the East on a goal near the crease, followed by Chase Pearson, again in front of the net. Conley and Pearson then scored again in rapid succession with five minutes to go in the first, and defenseman Christian Wolanin added another by sniping from the blue line.
“[Tyler] Sheehy was behind the net and kind of threw it out front hoping for a forward to come get it,” said Wolanin after the game, “and then it went through everybody and our forwards did a good job screening the goalie and I was able to find a lane.”
“I thought our guys came out and played well right from the start,” said East head coach Mark Carlson. “I thought puck movement was key for us. I thought our “D” did a really good job, especially in the first two periods, breaking out of our end and moving the puck up to our forwards.”
The second period was more even, with both teams scoring a goal.
Sam Miletic scored another goal for East, extending the lead to 6-0, meaning that Ben Blacker gave up six goals before being replaced by Chris Birdsall. But the West got on the board with 3:45 left in the second on a goal by Joe Masonius, one of two Team USA players in the game. His teammate Chris Wilkie had hit the pipe moments earlier, as West was making a push to get back into the game.
“I thought we found ourselves in a tough spot, no one hung their head,” said Varaday, “they got to work and they pushed back throughout the course of the game.”
The West kicked off the scoring in the third with a crazy goal from Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson that flew up in the air, end over end, looping over the head of goaltender Eric Schierhorn, and Jake Henderson tacked on another goal, closing the lead to 6-3 West.
“I obviously got a good pass in the slot there,” said Forsbacka-Karlsson, reflecting on the goal after the game, “and I think I took a shot there and it bounced back to me and I put a whack on it and it went up in the air and luckily it went in.”
Things got interesting when Dennis Gilbert was called for boarding Mikey Eyssimont, who got up under his own power and tapped Gilbert on the back after the play. Chris Wilkie scored a power play goal to close the gap to 6-4 with around two minutes left in the final frame.
An empty netter from Jiri Fronk sealed it for the West, but East coach Jay Varaday felt his team showed their true colors by climbing back into the game.
“[You] really discover character when you’re in tough situations,” said Varaday, “and I think our group was in a tough situation after that first period and they responded appropriately.”
The crowd was on it’s feet most of the game, shaking their cowbells, partial to the East team that dominated most of the contest. In general, the USHL felt good about the game as a whole, which was on hiatus last season after holding the event in Muskegon two years ago.
“I just thought it was a big-time event and the energy, the building, during warm-ups, during the skills competition throughout the entire game,” said Carlson. “Dubuque and Dan Lehve (President of the Dubuque Fighting Saints) and their entire organization, the community here in Dubuque, the fans, it was just an incredible event. It’s gonna be tough to top; it was a great night.”
It was a good showing for many players, including Christian Wolanin and Chris Wilkie, who had great games against the league’s best competition after being passed over on Draft Day in 2014.
“Yeah, truthfully undrafted or drafted, I’m just going to continue to do what I need to do in order to achieve my goals,” said Wolanin, who’s father Craig played in the NHL from 1985 to 1998, “and it was nice to come into the game and prove a point, I guess.”
“Yeah, for sure,” said Wilke when asked if he wanted to catch the attention of scouts that passed him over last year. “This year I’m just trying to enjoy it and not worry about any of that and just go day-by-day and try and prove people wrong.”
In short, they want to be one of the guys — like Girgensons and Gaudreau — to say that he too made it from this league to the NHL. They want to be on the giant posters at the entryway of the arena one day.
Notes: As is the case at any of these prospect games, a team MVP was chosen for each squad competing at this USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. For Team East, the recipient was Kevin Conley of the Youngstown Phantoms, who netted two goals and added an assist. Conley was not originally chosen to play in this game, but was added on Monday as a replacement for one of two injured Team East players. The Team West MVP was Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson of the Omaha Lancers, who registered a goal and an assist on the night.
Follow Tom Schreier on Twitter via @tschreier3