Two of the OHL's hottest teams met on Friday night, but all eyes were on Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco. After registering six points in his first three games since leaving Hockey-East's Boston College for Kitchener Rangers, Bracco was in for his toughest test.
After opening his career against middling teams from North Bay, Peterborough, and Guelph, Bracco arrived in Ottawa to face a 67's team that has quickly moved up the standings since they started there season with three consecutive losses, to an East Division leading 10-6-1.
Despite a quiet first period, with a lone scoring chance created off a pass to the slot, Bracco broke out in the second. Just two minutes into the frame, defensemen Dmitri Sergeev broke out of his own zone, side-stepping two 67's forwards before throwing a backhand up the boards to Bracco for an odd-man rush.
Bracco, in on a 2-on-1, immediately surveyed the ice, picking up streaking teammates and leading scorer Ryan MacInnis -- a second round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in 2014. Looking pass first as he had all game, Bracco feathered a puck across the slot to find MacInnis in stride for a tap-in goal and the eventual game winner.
While not the strongest skater in a straightaway race -- he tends to hunch over and splay his feat, which limits him if he wants to beat someone with raw speed -- Bracco's ability to change directions and open up defenders by sliding laterally was on display throughout the night.
Not used in a defensive role or on the penalty kill, Bracco's ice time declined throughout the game after heavy minutes early on with a ton of neutral and offensive zone starts, including all three starts to the period. Late in the third, he wasn't used on the last handful of defensive zone shifts.
The lone primary assist gave the newest member of the OHL-leading Rangers his seventh point in four games and helped Kitchener to a 13-0-3 record (4-0 with Bracco in the lineup).
That early success helped Bracco change his direction and leave a full-ride scholarship for Canada's top junior league.
"It's pretty hard to say no," Bracco said after Friday's 3-1 win over the 67's. "I didn't know what to expect but I'm happy with my decision."
The 2015 second round pick said that he has no regrets about leaving Boston College, and that both his agency and the Leafs didn't have any deciding input on the decision. The decision, he said, was between him and his family and he's thankful the Leafs weren't pushy.
"Ultimately it was my decision," the diminutive winger said after spending 15 minutes riding a stationary bike outside the Rangers dressing room. "It was nice to have the Leafs' support."
Since joining the team, Bracco credited top players such as MacInnis and 2016 draft-eligible forward Adam Mascherin for easing the transition to a new team and welcoming him with open arms.
Ottawa 67's head coach Jeff Brown, who coached against Bracco in minor hockey while coaching his own son, said he knows Bracco "very well" despite seeing him for the first time at the OHL level on Friday.
"He's a very, very talented player," Brown said, adding that the league is lucky to have such a skilled player. "He's exciting."
Bracco's Rangers are back in action on Saturday when they face Leafs prospect Stephen Desrocher and the Kingston Frontenacs.