Good morning from Traverse City, where your Chicago Blackhawks are the 2017 Matthew Wuest Memorial Cup Champions!
Twenty minutes into the championship game, I would have said that was an impossibility. The team looked sluggish and uncoordinated, allowing two pretty terrible goals within the first five minutes of the game. Both goals came from allowing a Columbus player to come straight down the center and camp out in front of the goalie. It took the Blackhawks more than ten minutes to get their first shot on goal, and it wasn’t even a particularly good one. A Blue Jackets penalty gave the chance for the Blackhawks to start getting a feel for the puck, though, and momentum started to shift their way by the end of the first.
The rest of the game belonged to the Blackhawks. Chicago peppered Blue Jackets goalie Ivan Kulbakov with shots, with 11 in the second period and 10 in the third. Goalie Matt Tomkins looked locked in, playing essentially 55 minutes (and then some) of shutout hockey. Radovan Bondra opened scoring for the Blackhawks in the second with a laser of a shot down the center.
And then: Alex DeBrincat.
DeBrincat tied the game at the end of the second period on a play that was all him, start to finish. He had a great shot coming up the right side, was stopped by Kulbakov, collected his own rebound, took it back around the net and got the goal on the second try.
Both teams traded chances in the third, with several close calls and outstanding work from both goalies. But nothing went in, so, to overtime we went.
The first shift of three on three overtime felt like they were largely about the players getting the mechanics of the game right. Chicago opened with Alexandre Fortin, Matthew Highmore, and Robin Press, who had a few good chances but seemed to struggle to get things going as a full unit.
And then: Alex DeBrincat.
DeBrincat drops a pass back to Luc Snuggerud, who takes a shot as he comes up the middle. Kulbakov stops it, but the rebound doesn’t go far, and DeBrincat shovels in some loose change right on the doorstep. It’s not a highlight reel goal, but it’s a goal, and it’s a winner.
DeBrincat came to Traverse City with something to prove, and he certainly did just that. While he didn’t lead the tournament in scoring (that goes to St. Louis’ Tage Thompson, with nine points), he did lead it in goals (five, including two game winners) and shots (17 over four games). He got to show everyone the fiery, competitive spirit that he plays with, and almost certainly has given Chicago’s front office something to think about when they’re designing their roster for next season.
Last year’s surprise story out of Traverse City was the success of Gustav Forsling, who performed so well throughout the tournament and training camp that the Blackhawks kept him on the team for a large part of the season. Forsling was a bit of an unknown, but everyone seems to know exactly who DeBrincat is and what he can bring to the team. The unknown for DeBrincat will be seeing how he performs against NHL-level competitors.
Many of the same players who made an impression on me throughout the tournament continued that in their last game. Carl Dahlstrom looked the best of the group of the three Swedish defenseman, particularly in his passing. Matthew Highmore and Will Pelletier have great chances to really impress at the AHL level. Luc Snuggerud looked fantastic, one of the best passers on the ice. (He also can catch really well, based on the number of times he caught a puck in the air to keep it from going out of the zone.) He’ll be fantastic for Rockford’s power play. Both goalies proved to be up to the challenge, and should be a huge help to shore up the organization’s goalie pipeline.
Training camp is almost certain to be very, very interesting.
Stats and boxscore from the game can be found here.
(Photo: Sarah Avampato)