Alex Tuch won’t say if Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono ever robbed him quite as badly as Washington’s Braden Holtby had in Game 2 back when the two childhood friends were playing in his backyard rink in Syracuse, N.Y.
But if they were out on the soccer pitch, there’s no question as to who had the edge.
“My soccer skills are very, very average,” said Tuch, a forward with the Vegas Golden Knights. That’s certainly not the case with Bono, who last year set a Toronto FC record with 10 shutouts and helped the team win the MLS Cup.
“He’s tearing it up,” said Tuch. “What does he have the most shutouts for a rookie ever in MLS history — clean sheets, as they call it — it’s unbelievable. It really is. Honestly, I wasn’t the biggest soccer fan growing up. But as soon as he started playing for Toronto FC, I was 100% on board. I’m a fan and it’s awesome. I’m cheering for them all the time.”
The admiration goes both ways.
Tuch is two years younger than Bono, but is the same age as Bono’s younger brother. The three of them grew up around the corner from one another and went to the same schools all the up to college. During winters, they’d spend hours almost every day playing hockey on the rink that Tuch’s dad built in the backyard.
“I used to play goalie against him on the ice, now he’s playing in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s really cool,” Bono told Postmedia News. “They’re doing the impossible. For him, that’s incredible. It’s been a really awesome journey for himself and for a rookie — his playoff stats — it’s like he’s playing a video game out there.”
Though he’s made it look easy, Tuch’s journey hasn’t exactly been an easy ride. A first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2014, Tuch spent two years at Boston College and another in the minors before finally making his NHL debut.
In six games with the Wild, he did not score a single point. When the expansion draft arrived, he was tossed in as a trade so that Vegas would select Erik Haula rather than defenceman Mathew Dumba. It proved to be a huge mistake that ultimately cost Chuck Fletcher his job as the team’s general manager.
Not only did Haula have a career year with 29 goals and 55 points, but Tuch also emerged as one of Vegas’ top young players.
The 22-year-old rookie spent the first four games in the minors, but once he was called up he scored in each of his first two games and ended the season with 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games. Despite being on the wrong side of a highlight-reel save, he’s been even better in the playoffs, with six goals and nine points in 17 playoff games.
“It was a great save, and it’s going to happen whether it’s going to be to me or another guy in this room, or a guy in that room,” Tuch said of coming close to sending Game 2 into overtime. “It happens. I think I’m playing pretty well so far. To be here right now it’s been unbelievable. It’s been the best time of my life.”
It could get even better if Tuch manages to follow Bono’s path and also win a championship this year. If so, there is no question that he would bring the Stanley Cup back to Syracuse and celebrate with Bono. Or maybe he would bring it to MLS game.
After all, he still hasn’t had the chance to see one yet.
“We were in Toronto during the (MLS) playoffs, but we were playing the Maple Leafs and I wasn’t able to go,” said Tuch. “They were actually staying in a hotel during the playoffs too and we were staying at the same hotel, so he came by and said hi. I was happy to see him. I’m so happy for him.
“But I have to go. I definitely have to. It’s only a three-hour drive from Syracuse so maybe I’ll pick up his brother and we’ll go together.”
Postmedia News, with files from Ryan Wolstat
Teams usually rely on experience at this time of year. But neither the Golden Knights nor the Capitals would be here without the contributions of their youngsters.
Vegas’ Alex Tuch is ranked second in rookie scoring with six goals and nine points — Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor still leads with 10 points — while Washington’s Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana each have two goals and seven points, and defenceman Christian Djoos has an assist and is logging close to 11 minutes per game.
“Whatever chance I got, I just tried to go out and have fun and make sure I do things right and I help the team,” said Vrana.
“I use the term he’s a Swiss Army knife for our team,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said of Stephenson’s versatility. “If he’s on more of a grinding line, he’ll play that grinding style. If he’s with skilled people, he’ll play that skill game. If he’s playing the wing with someone who gets the puck to space, he’s going to use his speed. He’s very adaptable in this game. He’s sort of that guy that can swing all over the place for us. Very, very valuable.”