DENVER -- Midway through the third period, with a surging Sharks team dominating and leading by a pair, Avalanche forward Chris Stewart took a lead pass and exploded past a San Jose defenseman to score a critical, momentum-shifting goal.
It was an electrifying play that woke up the sparse Pepsi Center crowd, not to mention the Avs, yet apparently it was only the start for Stewart. A few minutes later, the nimble power forward made another neat move to sidestep a defender deep in San Jose's end, this time setting up Paul Stastny for the equalizer.
|Chris Stewart has proven he's a scorer but with lots of other skills too. (Getty Images)|
"Chris Stewart started a real lifeline for us," Avs coach Joe Sacco would say later. "He kind of took charge in the third period and dictated how we'd finish that game."
That's something that Stewart has been doing a lot more than people realize for Colorado, where the team became a media darling during a surprising playoff run last season. Much of the spotlight tended to be focused on names like Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Craig Anderson.
Stewart, meanwhile, was taking a bit of a back seat despite being in the midst of a breakout season, although he'll likely find it harder to stay under the radar now that he has an NHL star of the month honor on his resume. The 23-year-old right winger was the league's second-leading scorer in October with 16 points, and he is keeping up the pace in November with six points in his past five games.
"You can't slow down," he said. "I mean the recognition is nice, and things definitely have been pretty good so far but you can't let up. You always have to keep things going."
In essence, Stewart is doing just that, taking the next step after leading Colorado with 28 goals and earning a two-year, $6 million contract as a result. It's not a bad progression for someone who created concern in the organization that it might have erred by taking Stewart in the first round of the 2006 draft.
Back then, Stewart was a highly touted late bloomer who at one point had gravitated more toward playing football than hockey. His older brother Anthony, a first-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2002, brought him back to hockey as a junior player, and he appealed to the Avs because he was a big guy who could skate and was willing to mix it up when necessary.
He had a scoring touch, too, as Stewart demonstrated when he joined Colorado's top farm team at Lake Erie in 2007 under Sacco and scored 25 times. That earned him a promotion to the big club, where he met up again with Sacco, at the start of last season, but Stewart had conditioning issues and was lackluster at best when he played, ending up back in the minors early in October.
"That was really tough to handle, but I realized that is was all on me that it happened," Stewart said. "I knew what I had to do and I went down, thinking I'll make the most of the next chance."
Stewart got lucky because the chance came only a few days later when the Avs ran into some injury issues with their forwards. Stewart was recalled and put on a line with the team's best playmaker, Stastny. He soon developed into Colorado's top sniper.
"I think he's the type of player who can complement anyone he plays with," Stastny said. "You look at him and you think power forward, but ... he can forecheck and he can pass and work down low. He can do everything because he has a lot of different skills and that's understated.
"This year is even better because he has the confidence. And he's trimmed some of the fat."
Quite a bit of it actually. Stewart underwent a rigorous offseason training regimen near his Toronto area home and changed his diet dramatically, dropping weight and body fat, while adding muscle and endurance. The upshot is that he has been playing with extra energy, moving quicker on the ice, and getting more than a minute more of playing time this season than he did in the last one.
"For sure I feel a lot better out there," Stewart said.
And he's making an even bigger impact than he did last season on a team that is once again, and perhaps surprisingly, in the thick of the playoff race out West.
"Everyone knows the guy can make plays, but he's definitely more explosive now," Sacco said. "He recovers quicker because of what he did in the offseason, and that obviously helps because he is a real talent."
One who will be hard to overlook for long.