Four days off.
That’s all Calgary Hitmen centre Tristen Nielsen allowed himself to have following the end to his first full season with the club.
Coming back with a retooled body and an improved snap shot, Nielsen looks ready for an impact year with the Hitmen. He guided them to the 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings Friday night at WinSport Arena Friday.
“I hit the gym after the season and two weeks later I was power skating, working on my crossovers. My dad also took me to the shooting range lots. I was shooting pucks for two hours a day until my arms got sore. I also put a lot of work in with the Hitmen trainer and I think it has really helped,” said Nielsen.
The former first-rounder, Nielsen got things going less than two minutes into the first period, when Matt Dorsey battled along the blue line to keep the puck in the offensive zone. He dumped it behind the net, where Washington Capitals prospect Beck Malenstyn dug the puck out of the boards and flipped it to Nielsen on the backhand. Sensing an opening, Nielsen barreled back into the slot and snapped a wrister to the low glove of Liam Hughes, handcuffing him and trickling in.
For the 17-year-old Nielsen, it was his first pre-season game with the Hitmen, after sitting out the first two with a minor upper-body injury.
He is coming off a non-impactful rookie campaign where he only scored three goals and seven points in 49 games last year. He appeared in three games with the Hitmen and buried one goal in the 2015-16 season, months after the team selected the Fort St. John native with the 20th pick in the Bantam Draft.
“Tristen has a heck of a shot. He needs to keep shooting and moving his feet,” said Hitmen Head Coach Dallas Ferguson. “I have been impressed with him. I came in not knowing a bunch about him, but he has speed, he can handle the puck at high speed and he has a quick release.”
Nielsen was working well with his linemates Malenstyn and Dorsey. Dorsey was in on most forechecks and Malenstyn got the youngster the puck whenever possible, letting his fast feet go to work.
Nielsen nearly buried his second of the game on the penalty kill. He chipped the puck away from Fedor Rudakov at the blue line and was sent in alone on Hughes. He laser-beamed a shot just over Hughes’ left shoulder, rimming around the boards.
The Hitmen were leading the Oil Kings 2-0 after the first two frames, carrying the play and leading 20-13 in shots.
“Two things from tonight were; when you start a period up 2-0, you should be thinking how the other team is going to prepare for that period and grab momentum early and we didn’t do that,” said Ferguson.
An early five-on-three advantage in the third for the Oil Kings didn’t result in a goal, but certainly got their momentum rolling, as they would outshoot the Hitmen 16-5 in the final frame, with goals coming from Brett Kemp and Wyatt McLeod nearly three minutes apart.
“The second thing was penalties. Regardless if their coincidental or penalties behind the play or penalties during faceoffs; when you get in penalty trouble, you feel the residual effects of the penalties. Guys on the ice get fatigued, there are guys on the ice more than they should be and there are guys on the bench sitting longer than they should be. It kills momentum,” said Ferguson.
The Oil Kings had all the momentum with just over five minutes remaining in regulation, when Nielsen stripped the puck from defenceman Rudakov at the Hitmen blue line.
Off went Nielsen, flanked by Malenstyn, a mirror image of an earlier two-on-one chance when Malenstyn kept the puck and didn’t score.
Nielsen identified that the defenceman shaded towards Malenstyn, who was on the backhand, giving him an open lane towards the net.
And just like the hundreds of hours spent in the hot, smoky summer at the shooting range, Nielsen let it fly, burning Hughes over the glove this time and sending the water bottle flying.
“I just trusted myself out there. I used my speed and so long as my feet are moving, I’m in a good spot. I shot the puck, just tried to hit the net and got lucky,” said Nielsen.
Now into the third game of the Hitmen’s pre-season schedule, the younger players have naturally gravitated towards the older players as they try and learn the WHL ropes for the first time.
One of those veteran names that keeps getting brought up is Malenstyn, who had a front row seat to the Nielsen show tonight.
“Tristen has a lot of confidence and skill out there. I think he has a chance at having a big year for us,” said Malenstyn. “We both have enough speed, if we get up the ice with the puck, good things will happen.”
Malenstyn is one of the seven Hitmen who will be attending a NHL camp this week. Hurricane Irma cancelled the rookie tournament in Estero, Fla., which would have featured a Washington Capitals team. He was supposed to depart Sept. 6 for the tourney, but instead will head straight to Washington for the Caps’ main camp for the second-straight year.
“I’ll be more comfortable this year for sure. It’ll be exciting being out there with a lot of great players. It might be rare for a 19-year-old to make it, but if you sell yourself short, you will never make it. It’s unlikely, but my mindset is to go there and to make the team. I have a lot of respect for the guys that are there in front of me, but I have a job to do and that is leave my mark and a positive impression with them,” said the 2016 fifth-round pick.
With Nick Schneider away at Calgary Flames camp, it looked like his fill in Connor Dochuk was not only going to deliver the Hitmen’s first win of the pre-season, but also the team’s first shutout.
He wasn’t all that busy in the first two frames, aside from a five-on-three Kings power play and a few chances in front, the 6-foot-3 netminder looked solid.
“(Dochuk) is a big guy and powerful. He uses his body well and looks big in the net. He did a good job holding us in it; he made a couple good saves in tight on some deflections and made some good reads. Any time you can get that from a goalie, it’s a good thing,” said Hitmen Goaltending Coach Jason LaBarbera.
Tied at two late in the third, the Oil Kings were taking advantage of a thinned out Hitmen defensive core that were short Jameson Murray after he picked up a fighting major and game misconduct for his second-period scrap with Kobe Mohr.
With five minutes left, Andrei Palvenko leaked into the slot, launched a one-timer, but was denied by Dochuk.
“Feels good to get the win. It was a total team effort out there tonight. I was able to stay focused pretty well, didn’t wander off when it got slow and I followed the play as best I could,” said the Edmonton product Dochuk.
Andrei Grishakov added his first of the pre-season on a slick fake-pass from Justyn Gurney at the 6:06 mark of the second period. Gurney’s three pre-season points nearly eclipse the four points he tallied in 31 games with the Hitmen last season.
Not dressed for the Hitmen were Jakob LaPointe, 15-year-old Luke Prokop (who is still with the team and will play Sunday), Murphy Stratton and defenceman Brady Reagan.
The Hitmen were also missing Jake Bean (Carolina Hurricanes), Matteo Gennaro (Ottawa Senators), Jakob Stukel (Vancouver Canucks), Mark Kastelic (San Jose Sharks) and Luke Coleman (Oilers), who were all away at NHL camps.
The Oil Kings drop to 0-3 in the pre-season, as the Hitmen improve to 1-2.
The two teams will do this all over again Sunday night at the Downtown Community Centre in Edmonton. Puck drop is set for 4 p.m. The Hitmen will wrap up their exhibition season Sept. 16 when they battle the Kootenay ICE at the Crowsnest Pass Arena.
The Hitmen will open their season Sept. 22 in Cranbrook against the ICE, and will turn around one day later and take on the ICE at home Sept. 23. Puck drop is slated for 7 p.m.