Jeremy Bracco has been told over and over again by his coach to shoot the puck more. He made Windsor bench boss Rocky Thompson look like a genius on Friday.
The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect scored once and set up another as the host Spitfires opened the 2017 Memorial Cup with a 3-2 victory over the Saint John Sea Dogs.
“I don’t know if (coach) will ever say I do it enough, but he’s preached it to me the last six weeks,” said Bracco.
“I’ve worked a lot on my shot, six or seven shots tonight and it worked out.”
The 20-year-old Bracco, selected 61st overall by Toronto in 2015, began the season with the Kitchener Rangers, but found himself with Windsor after a mid-season trade. At the time the Memorial Cup wasn’t on his mind, but dressing for the Spitfires was something the Freeport, N.Y., native wanted to do.
Playing for the Canadian Hockey League’s biggest prize after Windsor bowed out in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs turned out to be an added bonus.
“This was one of the teams I had in the back of my mind that if I got traded I’d waive my no-trade clause to come to,” said Bracco. “Obviously the playoffs didn’t work out for us but I’m fortunate to be here.”
“Jeremy really has been a great kid and we’ve tried to strengthen areas, shoot the puck more, he’s arguably got one of the best shots on our team,” said Thompson. “He bought in and did a great job since we were able to acquire him.”
Jeremiah Addison and Aaron Luchuk scored the others for the Spitfires (1-0-0), who got a 20-save outing from Michael DiPietro.
Nathan Noel and Thomas Chabot scored for the Sea Dogs (0-1-0), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions. Callum Booth stopped 20-of-23 shots in defeat.
Windsor went 44 days between games after being eliminated in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, but the rest looked to be a benefit rather than a negative for the tournament’s hosts.
Eight of the last nine Memorial Cup champions have won their league titles, with the 2012 host Shawinigan Cataractes being the last club to lift the trophy after bowing out in their league playoffs. The Spitfires are trying to buck that trend.
Coach Thompson entered the tournament optimistic his team could compete with the best, and Friday’s win added some confidence with two more round-robin games to go.
“Our objective was to limit turnovers, advance the puck and go to work where we’re good,” said Thompson. “I’m extremely proud of our group, it wasn’t easy.”
Addison made it 1-0 Windsor with 4:03 to play in the first period, snapping a quick shot blocker side on Booth on the power play after taking a pass from Bracco, who was below the goal line.
Bracco doubled his club’s lead, beating his defender wide and, after being stopped on his first try by Booth, put home his own rebound with 1:43 to go in the second period.
Defenceman Mikhail Sergachev put a point shot on net that Luchuk tipped past Booth with 15:12 to go in regulation to make the game feel like it was over.
Saint John, however, finally found its groove, just a little too late.
The Sea Dogs got on the board when Noel beat a screened DiPietro. Then Chabot made a game of it with another just 1:04 later with less than three minutes remaining in regulation and Booth on the bench for the extra attacker.
Saint John kept up the intensity for the final two minutes in search of the tying goal, but couldn’t find the equalizer.
“They had a really good game, we give them a lot of credit,” said Chabot.
“We played five minutes out of 60 and almost tied the game, we just need to go back to playing how we played all year.”