After a summer of waiting, Barriball makes strong debut

C.J. Spang

For the first time in five seasons, the maroon and gold Easton hockey jersey with

No. 26 stitched on the back won’t be worn by the fifth pick in the NHL Draft.

It won’t be a guy like Thomas Vanek or Phil Kessel, both of whom made Minnesota fans slide toward the front of their seats and place their hands on the arm rests ready to leap forward in celebration because one flick of the wrist could change an entire game.

Instead it will be Jay Barriball, the 5-foot, 9-inch, 156-pound freshman forward, who, despite his size, played more physically and with more hustle in one game than Vanek or Kessel did in their entire careers.

The two relied on sheer talent in their combined three years as Gophers. And there’s no question they are two of the most skilled players ever to don a Minnesota jersey, but that doesn’t mean Barriball feels any extra pressure.

“It’s just a number,” he said. “But, I don’t know, it’s kinda cool to be wearing the same number as those guys.”

While those guys certainly were catalysts for their teams, they weren’t exactly complete players.

Vanek hardly played defense, nor was he really expected to. The team knew it would play a man down on the defensive end with Vanek on the ice, but that was a fair trade-off considering his scoring ability.

Kessel was similar to Vanek in that he didn’t do a whole lot beyond scoring. He always shied away from contact and he was listed as 3 inches taller and 34 pounds heavier than Barriball.

It’s fitting really that Barriball, who was drafted by the San Jose Sharks 198 spots after Kessel in the 2006 NHL Draft, would replace Kessel and wear his number.

Barriball wasn’t slated to play for Minnesota until the 2007-2008 season, but, with Kessel’s decision to turn pro, the Gophers were short a forward and Barriball was called in.

“It was just a waiting game over the summer and (when) I found out I got to come here, it was just unbelievable,” he said. “Then I found myself sitting in the locker room today saying, ‘This is it, this is what I dreamed about my whole life.'”

And on the night when Kessel was making his NHL debut in Boston, recording zero points on two shots and earning a plus/minus rating of minus-2 in 14 minutes of ice time, Barriball was chasing down loose pucks, pressuring the Maine skaters, drawing penalties, creating chances and scoring his first collegiate goal. Basically, he was everywhere.

His goal came with 1:06 remaining in the first period, when Barriball put home a rebound on Mike Vanelli’s shot from the blue line.

Barriball had the puck come right to him and while falling down, managed to get the puck past a solid goaltender in Ben Bishop.

“It was unbelievable,” Barriball said of the goal. “I was really happy, but it would have been a lot nicer to get a win out of it.”

But Barriball’s hard-nosed, impressive play didn’t stop there.

After a Maine save on a Mike Carman shot, Barriball skated over to the far boards and shoved the Black Bears’

6-foot, 7-inch, 221-pound defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin.

Apparently, the size disadvantage didn’t faze the youngster.

“That’s part of my game,” Barriball said. “Just to hit guys and work hard. It gets me going and gets the other guys going too.”

And it definitely looked as though his play Friday inspired his teammates, as Minnesota dominated for a majority of the game after Barriball’s goal.

As for whether Barriball can continue scoring and put up Vanek and Kessel-like numbers this season, he had a lighthearted answer:

“I hope so.”

– C.J. Spang welcomes comments at [email protected]