By: Collin Schuck – IceRays Staff
Mar. 2, 2017
The stars aligned under the red, white and blue in a big way, and it wasn’t just the league that benefitted.
The 2017 North American Hockey League (NAHL) Top Prospects Tournament came and went early this week from USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., and another historic event shined lights on both individuals and regions with over 250 NCAA and NHL scouts in attendance. Each season, the league’s version of an all-star weekend brings together the best uncommitted talent in the NAHL for a two-day tournament in an effort to help land college scholarships and earn some eyes of professional scouts. The fruits of the players’ labor in regards to commitment won’t come for another few weeks, but the on-ice performance had an immediate impact.
And the Corpus Christi IceRays, along with the South Division, were at the centerfold.
The South Division could have been considered the pseudo-underdog team for both of their games. They took on USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP) on Monday night followed by a meeting with the Central Division on Tuesday afternoon. The NTDP becomes the favorite by nature of their talent and status within the junior hockey world, and the Central Division hadn’t lost since 2010, but the schedule goes deeper.
Rewind two years. The South Division had the same schedule: NTDP on Monday night and Central on Tuesday afternoon. The South and NTDP never met prior to that game, and their meeting became a difficult memory as the night wore on. That NTDP squad encompassed all U18 players, many of whom were featured in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft: Auston Matthews (1st overall pick, Toronto), Matthew Tkachuk (6th overall pick, Calgary), Charles McAvoy (14th overall, Boston), Luke Kunin (15th overall, Minnesota), and Tage Thompson (26th overall, St. Louis). The South was slammed 9-2 in that game and included a three-point night for Matthews. That was followed up by a 5-1 loss to the Central, marking a 0-2 record in their showing.
IceRays defenseman Logan Gestro played in that game, and that NTDP performance is all he talked about heading into the week to his curious teammates.
“They had a much better team than we did that year,” said Gestro. “I remember playing specifically against Matthews. We battled in the corner, and he had size on me and had an unbelievable turn. I felt like I had size on some of the other guys, but they just skated around us. This year, we had a much better team and structure to go up against them.”
Fast-forward to Monday. This year’s NTDP squad was a mixture of the U18 and U17 lineup, which provided a better competitive scale for the tournament, and the South Division took full advantage. The NTDP hemmed the South Division up in the first period and earned the game’s first goal early on, and from there it looked like déjà vu from two years ago.
However, the fourth forward unit, consisting of IceRays forwards Brad Power and David Thomson as well as Amarillo Bulls forward Luke Edgerton, brought the South Division not only back into the game but also led them to victory. All three South Division goals came from the back unit with Power factoring in on all three goals, including a goal in the second period, to take a 3-1 lead into the third period. Despite a late goal by the NTDP, the South Division would hang on for the 3-2 win, avenging their loss from two seasons ago with the offense of their fourth unit and the hard, physical play along the boards and in their own defensive zone.
Thomson tacked on an assist on the first South goal, and Gestro aided Power’s efforts, marking five of the nine team points in IceRays players’ hands. As expected, all three IceRays skaters were elated with the performance.
“The whole experience was pretty surreal,” said Power. “You go into a game like that just wanting to work really hard and hope you get a couple of good bounces, and it went better than we could have hoped. I was lucky to get three points against a lot of future NHL players, but our line had really good chemistry. I knew Thomson saw the game really clearly, and Edgerton fit right in and finished our chances.”
“The game really helped boost our confidence,” said Thomson. “We were pumped to get that kind of result and performance against guys already pinned to play in the NHL. It definitely was a really good experience to play against them, and I really enjoyed playing with Power and Edgerton. Everyone just seemed to click and work together.”
The following afternoon, another redemption came for the South Division against the Central Division. The day before, the Central Division earned their 10th-straight win at the tournament and remained undefeated since their last loss on Jan. 20, 2010. Prior to the game, South Division coach Dan Wildfong preached to the team about ending the streak the Central Division was on, and from the drop of the puck it was all South Division in the first period.
Three-unanswered goals stretched across in the opening eight minutes for a 3-0 South Division lead with the latter two goals assisted by Gestro to round out a three-point week. After a quick timeout and a Central answer in the second period, Power and Thomson once again found Edgerton to finish off their scoring week and add insurance for what would become a 5-2 win. For the second-straight year, the South Division swept the tournament and for the first time earned a share of the tournament title.
Elsewhere in the tournament, IceRays goaltender Tomáš Vomáčka held firm between the pipes for the NAHL Selects in their two-game week. As customary in the event, goaltenders will split time in each game with their counterpart, giving an equal opportunity for ice time against both opponents faced. The Czech Republic native started Monday afternoon’s game against the East Division, and while the NAHL Selects were naturally favored in the game, the East Division’s speed and physicality caused fits for the opposition’s defense. Vomáčka saw only eight shots in half a game, but both goals stretched across during his time in the crease resulted from defensive breakdowns and odd-man rushes in the 4-2 loss.
“Though I didn’t feel good about the loss, I was just happy to be there,” said Vomáčka. “It was a pretty good experience to play with a lot of new guys and start off the game. I didn’t get a lot of shots in that first game, but overall it was good to suit up and get some action.”
The top-billed meeting of the event was held until the final game of the week when the NAHL Selects took on the NTDP. Some noted the NTDP squad as the “better of the two” teams compiled during the week and, as expected, the game was one of the best of the week. The NAHL Selects slipped behind 3-0 by the end of the first period, and the game looked to be in the home side’s favor. However, a lucky bounce in the second period led to a five-goal run stretching into the third period to take a 5-3 lead within the first five minutes of the final frame. From that point, the NTDP took back control and popped in two more tallies while applying pressure until the final horn of regulation. In overtime, the NAHL Selects found the game-winner from New Jersey Titans forward Maxim Andreev to sink the NTDP 6-5 in a thrilling conclusion. Vomáčka made 26 saves and played the last half of regulation and all of overtime, becoming the first goaltender in the event’s history since 2008 to earn an overtime win.
Vomáčka has seen pieces of the NTDP multiple times over the last few years in international competition, but a lot more shots and a strong effort in front of him helped to finishing well for the two-game spread.
“I felt way better about the second game with a lot more shots. The guys helped a lot defensively and made me feel way more comfortable in net. It was really good to beat Team U.S.A. in their home rink. I was proud of how we did. It was a really good battle.”
If all that wasn’t enough, more IceRays individual and team records were set during the week’s proceedings. Power finished with four points (one goal, three assists), which ties the best individual performance in junior franchise history set by forward Beau Walker (four assists) at the 2012 NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, and his three-point night on Monday ties Walker’s single-game record in that same showcase. Monday’s and Tuesday’s wins for the South Division were the second and third times all three divisional representatives earned points in a single game, joining Team Texas’ 7-3 win over Team Dakota in the 2013 NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, as well as the first time all representatives earned points in both games during the tournament. Power’s goal was also the sixth in seven seasons for an IceRays player at the tournament and second in as many seasons.
In total, Power earned four points, Gestro recorded three assists, Thomson added two assists, and Vomáčka made 32 saves while earning an overtime win. By far, it was the best showing by IceRays representatives to date, and Head Coach Brad Flynn, who also made his first tournament appearance in the crowd, was beaming by the end of the week.
“Our players represented not only the team but the South Division really well,” said Flynn. “Each of our skaters had multiple points, and Tomáš played well and got an overtime win. Our league is no longer a secret. The skill and compete level is extremely high, and we continue to produce a lot of talented players. It was an unbelievable experience not only for me but also for the players. There was a lot of attention from teams at all levels for our guys that went and also those who did not make the trip.“
The entire spectacle was a sight to see both on and off the ice, but as the excitement and hype around the event begins to fade away and each representative returns to their home team, the elation and admiration during those brief two days fades into the distance. Now, heading into the final six weeks of the season, those newly-kindled relationships and found respect are put aside for the betterment of the team’s hopes for not only the postseason but also a championship by year’s end.
The stars of those few days will fade, but the memories won’t. Knowing the team and individual performance put on display, there’s always a chance those memories lead to stars shining again well after their junior careers are finished in a much larger, grander spectacle.
Collin Schuck is the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations for the Corpus Christi IceRays. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CollinDSchuck.