Once the pomp and circumstance came to an end at the Pacific Coliseum, with Bobby Orr and Don Cherry feigning disdain for each other prior to puck drop, a group of 40 prospects from across the CHL were finally allowed to cut loose and play hockey at the 2016 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
After three days of travel, testing, photos and interviews – call it the business side of this event – both teams predictably opened at a frenetic pace. It was Team Cherry that was able to sustain some early pressure, which resulted in hometown favorite Ty Ronning (Vancouver – WHL) opening the scoring.
Ronning, a late addition to the game replacing injured Vancouver teammate Tyler Benson, pounced on a loose puck and chipped it past Team Orr goaltender Carter Hart (Everett – WHL) to open the scoring at the 3:09 mark. Jordan Kyrou (Sarnia – OHL) drew the lone assist.
Both goaltenders were busy during the first frame, as Evan Fitzpatrick (Sherbrooke – QMJHL) came up with a handful of big saves to keep Team Orr off the score sheet. Fitzpatrick stoned Jack Kopacka (Sault Ste. Marie – OHL) twice from in close, then later turned aside another Kopacka shot that appeared labeled inside the far post.
Credit the crossbar behind Fitzpatrick with an assist early on, perhaps a birthday gift for the goaltender from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Pascal Laberge (Victoriaville – QMJHL) collected a rebound and bounced the puck off the iron. Fitzpatrick, who made 12 saves in the period, celebrated his 18th birthday with a start in goal for Team Cherry.
At the other end, Hart made eight saves, with his best coming when he turned away Michael McLeod (Mississauga – OHL).
Team Cherry opened the second stanza with some pressure in the attacking zone, testing Hart early and often. Alex DeBrincat (Erie – OHL) was a sparkplug, tossing his weight around and creating loose pucks. Samuel Girard (Shawinigan – QMJHL) jumped up to dish off to Max Jones (London – OHL), forcing Hart to make his best stop of the second period, stifling Jones with a blocker save.
Hart was called upon again and stood his ground when Ronning took a feed from Vitalii Abramov (Gatineau – QMJHL) and ripped a shot high to the stick side. The same crossbar that helped Fitzpatrick in the first period, reached out on Hart’s behalf in the second when Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia – OHL) snuck a shot through traffic from the top of the circle.
Fitzpatrick was able to hold the fort for Team Cherry. His best save came off Pierre Luc-Dubois (Cape Breton – QMJHL) who stepped around Sean Day (Mississauga – OHL) and went in uncontested.
The teams changed goaltenders midway through the second. Fitzpatrick made 18 saves in shutting out Team Orr, while Hart surrendered one goal on 16 attempts.
“The puck seemed pretty big out there tonight,” Fitzpatrick said. “The team limited the scoring chances. It’s fun playing those games, just a period and a half. It’s not too stressful.”
“He held us in there, boy,” Cherry said, when asked about Fitzpatrick’s 18-save performance. “And he wasn’t feeling well either. I’d hate to be up against him when he’s feeling good. Boy, he really held us in there.”
Fitzpatrick confirmed he was ill for most of the day, likely food poisoning. He felt better as the day wore on and was ready to go come game time. His mother made the trip from Newfoundland, along with about a dozen family members.
Laberge tallied in highlight reel fashion at 17:09 for Team Orr, evening the affair at 1-1. Libor Hajek (Saskatoon – WHL) moved the puck up ice to Dubois, who dished off to Laberge inside the bluleline. Laberge danced around DeBrincat and fired a laser past Zach Sawchenko (Moose Jaw – WHL).
The pace slowed early in the third period, but Team Cherry managed to outshoot Team Orr by an 8-2 count during the first seven minutes of play. Dylan Wells (Peterborough – OHL) was solid in relief of Hart, turning away all eight shots, directing rebounds out of harm’s way and controlling any loose pucks around the crease. Both Team Orr shots were of the difficult variety, but Dubois was first stymied in close by Sawchenko, who then quickly solved a Dubois wrap around attempt.
Midway through the period, Day was ushered off with what appeared to be a weak high-sticking call. Team Orr was quick to pounce on the power play opportunity when Laberge moved in on the off-wing and drove a wrist shot low past Sawchenko to give Team Orr a 2-1 lead at the 9:40 mark. Dubois and Kopacka picked up the assists.
Team Cherry drew even at 11:24, when Logan Brown (Windsor – OHL) beat Wells high on the stick side after taking a spinorama-like feed from Kyrou. Jones also collected an assist.
But the tie game was short lived as only 11 seconds later, Team Orr turned a Team Cherry mistake at the blueline into a two-on-one with Dubois burying a slick feed from Laberge to put Team Orr up by a 3-2 count.
Team Cherry dominated the final five minutes but could not solve Wells and the decision went into the books as a 3-2 victory for Team Orr.
Laberge and Dubois confirmed after the game that they have some history together, perhaps an explanation as to why the pair were so efficient together in the attacking zone.
“Me and Doober (Dubois) played together at the U16, U17 and U18 camps and we had good chemistry there,” said Laberge, who has been sidelined for a good portion of the QMJHL season with a broken hand. In fact, he has broken the hand twice. “I think it went well out there,” he added. “There’s just no words to describe this.”
Laberge finished the game with two goals and an assist, while Dubois also collected three points, including the game winner.
“My main goal was to play a good game,” Dubois said. “Kopacka is a real good player. Me and Pascal have played together and are pretty much from the same place, so we knew each other before coming here.”
Team Orr coach Bobby Orr was pleased with the win, bullish on the performance of both teams.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of these games and that was probably the best yet,” Orr said. “It was a heck of a hockey game and every kid on the ice played very well. There was some great goaltending, strong defense and it’s the best game in this event that I’ve been a part of.”
News & Notes: Laberge was named Player of the Game for Team Orr while the same honor went to Michael McLeod for Team Cherry…Team Orr was outshot on the night by a 36-27 count…Team Orr now holds a decisive 13-4-0-0 edge in the Top Prospects Game…Attendance, about 10,100, fell well below the all-time TPG record of 16,331 set in Vancouver in 2005…Laberge, Dubois and Kopacka were the best line on the ice, while the Team Cherry trio of Ronning, Abramov and Sam Steel (Regina – WHL) were a consistent threat all night.
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @