The third and final game of the 2019 Prospect Challenge had it all— drama, fights, goals, even overtime. Here’s a recap of this morning’s matchup as well as some thoughts on who made a good first impression, and who left a lot on the table.
Boqvist - Hughes - Clarke
Sharangovic - McLeod - Anderson
Hoelscher - Maltsev - Bastian
Popugaev - Larsson - Speers
Smith - White
King - Canade
Vukojevic - Sissons
The second line of Sharangovic-McLeod-Anderson opened up the first period for the Baby Devils, but things were a bit shaky for the first few minutes. Maintaining possession looked like it was a struggle, relative veteran Joey Anderson turned the puck over at the blue line with a clean pass directly to a rushing Baby Bruin, and I started reaching for the Ibuprofen. Then the lines changed, and fortunately so did the game flow. The top line hopped over the boards and suddenly we had a hockey game. Jesper Boqvist and Jack Hughes in particular jumped right into the play and handled the puck with poise and confidence, and the Devils were finally able to exit their own zone.
The reprieve would unfortunately be short lived, as Colby Sissons would take a subtle holding penalty chasing the puck and a Bruin back into the Devils’ zone. The Devils penalty kill, which consisted of Smith and White on defense and varied between Nathan Bastian, Joey Anderson, Mikhail Maltsev, and Yegor Sharangovich on offense, did a good job of keeping the zone clear and allowing minimal shots during the Bruins first man advantage. As 5 on 5 play resumed Boqvist would apply smart pressure at the Devils blue line to free the zone and get the puck moving in the right direction. Joey Anderson cleaned up his game after the shaky first shift and does a good job cleaning up loose pucks through the neutral zone. White would move into the offensive zone with the puck, looking confident as he dekes around forwards and passes a bit with Ty Smith. Smith, who’d been notably less than notable earlier in the tournament, brings a bit of attention to himself on the ice as he would get hauled down chasing a puck not once but twice in slightly over a minute, creating a power play that quickly turns into a 5 on 3 for the Devils.
PP1 consists of Hughes, Graeme Clarke, Boqvist, Bastian, and Smith, and the Baby Devils special team is considerably more pleasing to watch than the general 5 on 5 lines. Smith collects the puck and gets it to Hughes, who feeds Boqvist across the ice for a chance that wouldn’t go. Smith again feeds Hughes, who this time aims to set up Clarke but to no avail. The Bruins penalty kill gets the puck out and our superbabies regroup. Hughes collects and carries the puck just across the blueline before dropping it to Clarke, who battles for a moment before moving it in to a jumping Ty Smith. Smith spots Bastian sneaking in the backdoor and sends the puck over for Bastian to rip home, and the Baby Devils would take a 1-0 lead in the first.
The first penalty had not yet expired to PP2 commenced, this time consisting of Anderson, Maltsev, Mike McLeod, Nick Canade, and White for the remainder of the man advantage. White would continue to look comfortable in his skates at the point, gobbling up pucks and snapping them towards the net looking for a hole as the penalty expired for the Bruins. With a lead under their belts the Baby Devils had some new life, and the forecheck came alive with better pressure than they’d been producing so far in the tournament. Jack Hughes would come back onto the ice to star in a stickhandling clinic deep in the Devils zone as the rest of the lines changed, fending off multiple Bruins and making it look easy.
The later minutes of the first period were filled with some table tennis hockey—a lot of back and forth with a few chances here and there but little action to note. Maltsev would get a chance with a well placed far corner shot. Nikita Popugaev would lend a rare flex of his 6’6 frame by way of a big blast that just couldn’t find the net. Michael Vukojevic made an appearance at the blueline late in the period with a couple of fluttery shots but not enough on them to make anything happen.
Complacency and sloppy defense unfortunately reared their heads against the Devils in the waning moments of an otherwise decent first period. The Bruins would be allowed to create far too much traffic down the middle of the zone. Goaltender Evan Cormier was able to fend off a shot but couldn’t reposition in time to handle the next one, and the Bruins would even it up at one goal apiece heading into the first intermission.
The second period would open up in dramatic fashion as Boqvist gets tangled up with two Bruins including an unlucky Cameron Hughes. C. Hughes must have taken a stick or other object to the face in the tumble and had to be helped off the ice, doubled over with a towel over his face, and would not return.
The chemistry between Jack Hughes and Boqvist is beginning to heat up, and the pair would make some heads up plays off each other through the middle of the Bruins zone throughout the second period. Colby Sissons would step on to demonstrate some impressive accuracy on a shot from the point, only to be gobbled up by the Bruins goaltender Taylor Gauthier. The Devils have some opportunities here with some beautiful toe drags from Maltsev through a few defenders and a quick move or two from Hughes but can’t find the back of the net. Hughes tries to take matters into his own hands but is stopped by the Bruins defense, which turns into a breakaway chance against Cormier. Cormier fends off the shot with ease thanks to the backchecking Ty Smith, but Smith picks up a slashing penalty for his efforts and the Devils head to the penalty kill. Blake Speers, Ludvig Larsson, Sissons, and Vukojevic line up for the penalty kill. Why, I don’t know. The Bruins apparently appreciated it, as they set up a quick round of D to D passing then send the puck on net and immediately score on what seems to be a redirect through traffic, putting the Bruins up with a 2-1 lead.
The Devils defenders would get busy later in the second period, with some impressive moments and some.. not so much. Camp invitee Noah King would get stripped of the puck at the far blue line and find himself in a race for the loose puck heading back towards the Devils end. Cormier took matters into his own hands and stepped up to the top of the faceoff circles to steer the puck out of harms way for the moment. Fellow invitee Nick Canade also found himself with the puck at the blueline, but he would instead step up and blast one at the net. Colton Sissons would get an opportunity to show what he’s made of on defense, but instead opted to play pylon defense instead, standing dead in the water against a player with the puck on the halfway who just walked right around him into the slot. Offense closed out the second period with a collection of face palms. Hughes would notice the puck is loose among a crowd of Bruins at the blue line, kick on the Jack Hughes afterburners and pick the puck from under all their noses and drive the net—only to be stopped by a whistle as Nathan Bastian hadn’t been able to get back on-side in time. In the final seconds, Canade picks up the puck deep in the Devils zone and puts a pass up high in the neutral zone directly between Boqvist and Mitchell Hoelscher—who both just stared at it as it went past. The pair was mid-change but the lack of communication allowed the puck to sail down for an icing, stranding the majority of the already tired Devils skaters for the final ten seconds of the period.
Down a goal and having already dropped the first two games of the tournament, the Baby Devils would need to come out big for the third period. Nick Canade got the message, playing much bigger than his 5’9” frame and trying to bury blasts through traffic on the offensive side of the game, and handling himself on the defensive end as well. A chance for the Devils offensively would be foiled by an unfortunately-timed change, as Nikita Popugaev would carry the puck in the zone and look for a pass only to find no one available. Hughes takes a turn carrying the puck into the zone, heading straight up the middle through the Bruins defenders before finding Graeme Clarke loose on the outside of the play. Hughes would again find himself at the center of attention in the same shift but this time it would be due to a tangled check from behind directly into the official from the Bruins Sherman. Hughes, slow to get up after extracting himself from under the official, sparked the response of the much bigger Nathan Bastian, who responded with a few cross checks to the offending Sherman before squaring off and attempting to drop the gloves. This was not Bastian’s first fight but it sure looked like it as he struggled with his chinstrap slipping up over his face and a glove that just would not come off, with Sherman hanging on and waiting patiently for him to finally be ready to throw down. Both fighters would sit with Bastian taking an extra 2 minutes for cross checking.
The 4 on 4 moves into a penalty kill staffed this time by Maltsev, Canade, King, and Speers again. Speers had been relatively invisible much of the game, which may be why he saw so many opportunities on the penalty kill in an effort to test his metal and this time, Speers responded with a huge diving block to finish off the last few seconds of penalty kill time. Boqvist, who served the penalty to Bastian, would pull a Blake Coleman out of the box and pick up a pass for a rush down into the Bruins zone where he would just barely be stopped from reaching the top shelf. Play moving into the Devils zone would give Canade another opportunity to impress, this time by calculating and completing a clean breakout pass up the boards while simultaneously stepping up directly into an attacking Bruin, though a crowded neutral zone would halt the breakout effort. The Devils would eventually get the puck through to the offensive zone where it would be collected by Hughes. Hughes turns to make a centering pass and finds a crowd of black and yellow and absolutely no one to pass it to. White and Smith were both playing extremely high to the points, with White on the near side and Smith out in the middle of no mans land high on the far side. Boqvist and Clarke were both behind the net, meanwhile four Bruins stood in the slot with another coming from behind the net to pressure Hughes. The top line would settle and go on to dominate the Bruins in the waning minutes of the third period. Clarke and Boqvist sparkled with heads up plays and Hughes danced around the lower portion of the zone picking up passes and creating open ice. With a little over two minutes left, Boqvist would tangle up with the Bruins Victor Olofsson and draw a penalty.
The Devils opted to go big or go home and pulled Cormier immediately, starting the power play with a two man advantage staffed by Hughes, Boqvist, Clarke, Maltsev, Smith, and White. With the net empty, Maltsev would have to win the faceoff here, and he managed it cleanly. The Devils struggled a bit despite the two man advantage, with a lot of dumping the puck and searching for perfect opportunities. Though not usually a strategy I’d recommend, it would pay off for the Devils here as McLeod would collect the puck along the boards, hold and search for that opportunity, and find it in Larsson at the back door. Larsson puts it home for the tying goal with seconds left in regulation.
Overtime in this tournament is 3 on 3 as in the NHL, and the Devils would attempt to load their first line with Hughes, Boqvist, and Smith. Surprisingly Hughes seemed to struggle here, with a really lazy unimpressive attempt at defending, then coasting through a 2 on 1 opportunity and waiting too long to get the pass off to Boqvist. He and Boqvist would then be replaced with McLeod and Sharangovic, who move in with their own opportunity that almost results in a beautiful top off Sharangovic from McLeod but doesn’t quite make it. White replaces Smith at the point and helps the Devils maintain possession, kicking off a proper cycle in the Bruins zone. Larsson would come on for Sharangovic, collect a neat drop pass from McLeod at the right point, skate down the boards then cut cleanly through to the middle and rip a quick shot that beats Gauthier.
The Impressive and the Depressive:
Mikhail Maltsev would not have been one of the players I expected to make a big splash in this tournament. Playing as third line center behind Hughes and McLeod, Maltsev managed the puck as cleanly as anyone and showed excellent awareness, a strong skillset and a good amount of confidence and understanding of his own role and abilities on the ice. I was particularly impressed by a play he made in the first period—carrying the puck just over the Devils blue line with pressure coming head on, Maltsev stopped, turned towards the boards both to protect the puck and scope out the ice behind him, then makes a backhand spin-o-rama type pass directly to a driving Hoelscher. Calm, smart, and simple plays rather than trying to get fancy with the puck made Maltsev an absolute standout for me this weekend but especially in this morning’s game.
Graeme Clark and Jesper Boqvist handled themselves well throughout all three games and continued to do so today. Neither was perfect but they both handled the puck well and showed good awareness in their playmaking. Boqvist’s rush out of the box was a huge moment both for the game itself and for the Devils organization as they were able to glimpse the type of plays Boqvist is capable of seeing. Both wings had moments of great chemistry with their star center as well.
Colton White and Ty Smith together made a formidably talented blue line. Both were able to make offensive contributions without putting themselves too far out of position in general and showed the clear confidence that comes with top notch ice vision. Smith drawing penalty after penalty proves he’s keeping his feet moving and himself in the play. Despite a somewhat disappointing tournament in which the top scoring defenseman wasn’t racking up points, Smith didn’t respond to the pressure by jumping into the play too often or taking scoring chances away from forwards. White was also positionally sound through most of the game and shined in moments of offensive control. In chaotic tournaments like these with little communication and no set plays, positioning especially for defensemen can be extremely difficult to maintain as the desire to step up and help the forwards gets crossed up with not knowing what each player might do. Smith and White showed impressive awareness and poise in their game that I found really encouraging for the future.
Nick Canade, an undrafted prospect invited to the Devils prospect camp, seems to have showed up with the right chip on his shoulder and he is not afraid to use it. At 5’9”, 160lbs and only 19 years old, few people expected much from Canade, but Canade came ready to work and blew those little expectations out of the water. Both defensively and offensively sound, Canade made a splash each time he touched the puck and delivered everything from big shots to big hits without a second thought, and his passes and plays were clean. I expect to see more of him in the future, even if not with the Devils organization.
Nikita Popugaev on the other hand has some very big expectations on some very big shoulders, and for some reason does not seem to be finding his way to meeting them. While I don’t think he necessarily played poorly, I do believe he has the skills to play far better than he did this weekend. In particular I found it odd that at 6’6”, Popugaev heads into battles on the boards almost hesitantly. He seems to shrink down not as if he’s lowering his center of gravity for a hit but almost so as not to hit the opposing player as hard, which while you don’t necessarily want to body guys in a prospect tournament you also don’t need to baby anyone either. They’re not actually baby bruins, Pop. I hope to see a lot more battle and confidence from Popugaev this season in Binghamton.
Mike McLeod is another who hasn’t seemed to hit anywhere near where he’s expected to, and while he wasn’t a stud here this weekend, there were a few moments where he showed what I think he’s been lacking in previous seasons. McLeod has never lacked the awareness or drive and even at the NHL level was consistently willing to do the dirty work, rough up players in the slot at either end and battle for pucks. Where McLeod has struggled is the middle of the ice. When he has the puck, when he has room, he hasn’t been able to get it done. That struggle was present in the game again this morning as McLeod could constantly be found chipping back and forth with defensemen in front of Gauthier or bodying a Bruin who got too close to Cormier, but rarely came through with the play on his own. As the Devils found their stride later in the third period though McLeod seemed to be directly in the middle of that, calmly making the pass that would be the primary assist on both of Larsson’s goals. If it’s really just confidence that McLeod has been lacking, I’m hoping the few sparks of this that we saw this weekend might be the key to the bigger potential behind the former first rounder.
Where in the world was Jack Hughes in all this? Huge (Hughe?) expectations come with big skates to fill for Hughes, who failed to shine in the first game of this tournament. After sitting out on Saturday, Hughes came back with more of his usual playmaking shine today and more than held his own against his fellow prospects, but still didn’t dazzle anyone the way fans have hoped. And that’s a good thing. (Don’t sharpen the pitchforks yet please, hear me out). As Matt Loughlin touched on during the game, Hughes has dominated every level of ice he’s ever touched, with generally minimal effort. This level and this tournament in particular bring new challenges, ones that players as smart as Hughes will step back and analyze rather than trying to jump in and dominate singlehandedly (as he did a bit in the first game, which tended to backfire more than anything). First, he is in fact going up a level in terms of skill and size, and that will take some adjusting to. That’s not only in terms of getting bodied around on the puck but also defenders who can keep up with his stickhandling, or taller players who have more reach and can poke check the puck earlier than he’s used to expecting. He’ll have to learn, but with a player as smart as he seems to be, the adjustments will likely come fairly quickly. Second, Hughes is a playmaker. Yes he can score but his highlight reel moments tend to be dangling through traffic, drawing all the attention to himself then finding an open teammate to finish. This game lacked the traffic Hughes is used to dealing with, so the usual Hughes magic stayed shelved and he could just make simple passes. It also lacked his usual, or future, linemates. Boqvist and Clarke are excellent in their own rights but neither is Cole Caufield, or Hall, or Palmieri, or Subban. Hughes needs support and finishers no matter how good he is (if you’ve watched McDavid in an Oilers game, you know what I mean), and we can count on him having those at the NHL level more than he had here. No need to hit the panic button yet, just have to be patient for now.
Who did you think performed best today, and this weekend? Who didn’t live up to your expectations? If you were able to watch a game or two, how did you like the stream setup? Who do you think cracks the lineup, who becomes a regular, who gets a chance down the road this season if they clean things up? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and thanks for reading!