After a day off from the rigorous day and night schedule set up by the tournament directors, the Traverse City Rookie Tournament resumed games on Monday. The four games were played a little earlier in the day and at a somewhat staggered time, so complete coverage of the action did not require constant running back and forth between ice rinks. At the end of the evening, it was the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Atlanta Thrashers who were the big winners, and those two teams will play each other in tomorrow’s championship game. The New York Rangers and the Dallas Stars will play in the consolation game. The other four teams will play for fifth and seventh place.
Dallas vs. Columbus
The first game of the day was between Dallas and Columbus, by far the most important one played because the winner advanced to the championship. Both teams came into the games 2-0, and each knew that it was vying for first place in the West Division. The game was a very hard-fought battle, but in the end, the tournament favorite, the Columbus Blue Jackets, won the game by the score of 3-2. The best players on both teams played their best games, so it was a pleasure to watch the skill among the skaters. The goaltending of both Dallas’ Tobias Stephan (2nd round, 34th overall, 2002) and Columbus’ Steve Mason (3rd round, 69th overall, 2006), however, was shaky at times. Mason, the winning netminder, faced 36 shots and saved all but two. On one of the two shots, however, he misplayed the puck, it popped into the air, and the Stars poked it in the net. Stephan, who let in three of 29 shots, also had one goal that he wishes he could replay. Other netminding errors of each goalie did not result in goals on the board, but were clearly evident.
For Dallas, the play of Vojtech Polak (2nd round, 36th overall, 2003) seems to improve every game. Polak had two goals (and nine shots on goal), but that was only part of the skills he displayed. His on-ice vision and passing abilities are some of the best in this tournament. An exciting player, Polak looks ready for his shot at the NHL team. Also deserving a repeat mention after this day’s game is the diminutive center Marty Sertich (signed as a free agent). Although he has more adjusting to do to the professional game, Sertich (who registered one assist on the day) can skate, pass, and shoot. He will be exciting to watch when the main camp opens later this week.
Not quite as outstanding as Polak or Sertich, but still worthy of mention for their play, were Dallas forwards James Neal (2nd round, 33rd overall, 2005) and Dan Hacker (free agent). Hacker showed some excellent decision-making on the ice and played Monday’s game with quite a bit of hustle. Neal can take faceoffs, skates well, and has a more than adequate shot. Both should get more of a look over the coming days.
For Columbus, the stars of the game were Philippe Dupuis (4th round, 104th overall, 2003) and Kris Russell (3rd round, 67th overall, 2005). Each of Dupuis and Russell had a goal and an assist in the game. Russell, a defenseman, is fast and has a great release on his shot; Dupuis is also a very good shooter and has excellent puckhandling skills. Both are exciting young players. Dupuis will play professional hockey this coming season, but Russell, who has another year of junior eligibility, must either play in Columbus or be returned to his junior team.
Tampa Bay vs. Atlanta
By virtue of the fact that the Atlanta Thrashers had already beaten the team’s closest Eastern Conference rivals, Atlanta had clinched a role in the tournament championship game prior to the game. However, the prospects on the team were still looking to impress, and they did, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning by the score of 6-5, coming back from a significant deficit.
“We got down 5-2 today and I challenged them not to quit and they didn’t,” Thrashers team coach Jeff Pyle said later. “They played hard, they did what they had to do and I was pretty proud of them. It was a snowball thing, we started scoring and we had the confidence that we could get it done.”
While most of the tournament has been a showcase of speed and skill, this game was a penalty-filled affair, perhaps getting out of hand in part because the game had just one referee, not the normal two.
“It’s frustrating because you know you’ve got to shorten your bench,” Pyle said of all the penalties. “You want to see these kids play, you don’t want to see them sitting on the bench.”
He added later, “In a perfect world, I wish they were more disciplined. It’s tough on me, but it’s kind of helping me out. I’m not going to ream these guys like I would my own guys at times. It’s making me understand that I really need to focus on staying in control of what I’m doing.”
Tampa Bay is the hard luck story of this tournament, because although the team is 0-3 going into the tourney’s last day, the Lightning have not lost a game in this event by more than one goal. Three one-goal losses, including one in double overtime, is quite demoralizing. Despite the loss, again Tampa Bay had some outstanding young talent show their skills.
Radek Smolenak (3rd round, 73rd overall, 2005) had his second excellent game in a row. He had two goals and an assist on four shots. Another player who had a very good game for the Lightning was Blair Jones (4th round, 102nd overall, 2005) who had a goal and an assist in the game. It appears that 2005 will turn out to be an excellent draft year for Tampa Bay, as a third early round pick this year, Vladimir Mihalik (1st round, 30th overall, 2005), the 6’7, 220-pound defenseman, was quite impressive. Mihalik can hit and play the point on the power play effectively. With some more seasoning, he will be a very effective weapon for the Lightning.
Atlanta won the game with less than a minute to play on a goal by Jordan LaVallee (4th round, 116th overall, 2005). LaVallee continues to impress with his passing and positioning. It looks like Atlanta did well in 2005, as also worthy of mention was the play of Chad Denny (2nd round, 49th overall, 2005). Denny, who has one more year of junior eligibility, had two goals on the night.
The Thrashers’ lines were mixed up due to so many power plays, but one pairing has been Chad Painchaud and Tomas Pospisil, who were often linemates with the Sarnia Sting last season.
Just as the netminders in the Columbus/Dallas matchup did not have their best day, neither did the goaltenders playing in the game between the Thrashers and the Lightning. Tampa Bay’s star prospect Riku Helenius (1st round, 15th overall, 2006) let in six of 25 shots, and looked not quite comfortable in net. It did not help that there were defensive breakdowns in front of him, but some of the goals were strictly positioning problems. Atlanta’s recently-signed Dan Turple (6th round, 186th overall, 2004) did not fare much better; he only saved 10 out of 15 shots he faced the entire game.
Atlanta’s Brett Sterling, out since the beginning of Game 2 with a hip pointer but still practicing, will probably be back in the line-up Tuesday. Nathan Oystrick, who is just coming back from mononucleosis, played again Monday and Pyle said he’s “playing really well.” Ondrej Pavelec will return in net for the championship game.
After having been down 5-2 and coming back to score four goals, Pyle believes in the team heading into the match against Columbus.
“They’re pretty cohesive and everyone is buying in,” he said. “The guys have done everything I’ve possibly asked of them under these short circumstances. I’ve got to give the guys credit, it’s a great group.”
Minnesota vs. St. Louis
Prior to this game, the Blues management had been somewhat concerned that the team’s top line of Michal Birner (4th round, 116th overall, 2004), Carl Soderberg (2nd round, 49th overall, 2004) and David Backes (2nd round, 62nd overall, 2003) had not been scoring. In this evening’s game, the line accumulated six points and was part of three goals for the Blues. The Blues had been on a scoring drought since coming to the tournament, and this evening they ended that drought by scoring six goals in the team win over the Minnesota Wild. The Wild seemed to pick up their game, but then allowed the Blues to run off three straight goals, and basically the game was over. The Wild finished the round robin portion of the tournament with a record of 0-3.
Recent draftee Cal Clutterbuck (3rd round, 72nd overall, 2006) and Sweden’s star player Morton Madsen (4th round, 122nd overall, 2005) both had very good games. Each had a goal and an assist and were skating very well. Unfortunately it was not enough, as neither tournament standout defenseman Clayton Stoner (3rd round, 79th overall, 2004) nor netminder Kristofer Westblom (3rd round, 65th overall, 2005) had a good game. Stoner’s giveaway led to a goal against, and Westblom only stopped 19 of 26 St. Louis shots.
After sitting on the bench for Saturday’s game, Reto Berra (4th round, 106th overall, 2006) was back in net for the Blues this evening. He did a much better job tonight, stopping 29 of 32 shots. More importantly, he looked more relaxed and confident between the pipes.
New York vs. Detroit
In a very exciting game, the Rangers and the Red Wings battled to a 5-5 tie at the end of regulation time. It took two overtime periods to determine the winner of the matchup, which was won on a 3-on-3 north-south skate by Rangers’ prospect Brandon Dubinsky (2nd round, 60th overall, 2004). Dubinsky actually skated past the end line and came back to push the puck past Detroit’s goaltender Stefan Liv (4th round, 102nd overall, 2000) to win the game by a score of 6-5. The Rangers jumped out to a 3-0 lead and then gave up three straight goals to the Red Wings. It was the line of Justin Donati, Tyler Donati, and David Jarram (all free agents) that got Detroit’s second and third goal in the last minute of the first period and really seemed to take the steam out of the Rangers.
The diminutive Donati twins, who are in the Detroit camp on a tryout basis, looked like wizards with the puck, darting between the bigger Rangers defenders and using their stickhandling skills to put two pucks past Ranger netminder John Murray (free agent). When Hockey’s Future spoke to Justin Donati prior to the game, he said both brothers intended to return to their OHL teams for an overage year in 2006-07, but their performances this game may just take the twins in another direction.
The Rangers appeared flat, without energy, for all of the second and most of the third periods. It was only in the last minute of the third period, when Tomas Zaborsky (5th round, 137th overall, 2006) put his second goal of the night past Liv, that the Rangers awoke. Another 2006 Rangers’ draft selection, Bob Sanguinetti (1st round, 21st overall, 2006), tied the score with 10 seconds left in the game. That led to the Rangers second double overtime game of the tournament.
Another Rangers’ player who deserves mention for his excellent play for most of the game tonight was Phillip Furrer (6th round, 179th overall, 2003). Furrer, who has played in Europe his entire career, was very solid along the blueline. His stickwork and positioning were excellent, and his shot was more than adequate. For Detroit, impressive was the play of Bretton Stamler (7th round, 214th overall, 2005). He scored a very nice second period goal through traffic and played solidly on defense, even though he was on the ice for two first period 5-on-3 Rangers power-play goals against.
The netminders in this game did not look particularly solid. However, in all fairness, at times, each defensive corps let its goaltender down. Liv stopped 33 of 39 shots, and tryout netminder John Murray stopped 29 of 34 shots for the Rangers. Murray looked very shaky at times, going down early and not staying square to the shooter.
Tomorrow’s championship placement games begin at 2:00 pm, when Tampa Bay takes on Minnesota in the seventh-place game.
Holly Gunning contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.