With time running out in the third period of a road game and his team trailing by a goal, Colorado Avalanche rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk retrieved the puck deep in his own end and quickly transitioned it into a rush the other way.
Shifting into a higher gear, Shattenkirk blitzed down the right side, blowing past a couple of Carolina forwards and then outmaneuvering a third before cutting to the middle and making a tape-to-tape pass that teammate Milan Hejduk neatly converted it into the equalizer.
|Shattenkirk continues to turn heads his rookie season. (Getty Images)|
And it was largely because Shattenkirk provided yet another example of why he has been making everyone around the league sit up and take notice of him lately.
"There's no question he's making very good plays at the right time, and at big times too, so his confidence is high," Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. "He's a smart, intelligent player who manages the game very well, and when he plays with that kind of assertiveness he's fine.
"That's really the key to his game, but what I really like is that his attention to detail defensively has gotten much better and over course of the season. That's always the challenge for a young defenseman, but he's really working hard at that side of his game, making sure he knows his coverage down low is good. After that his ability and offensive instincts take over."
Those inate offensive instincts, not to mention his great skating ability, have made Shattenkirk the league's hottest rookie with 14 points in 15 games. They have helped him put together the nine-game scoring streak that Shattenkirk took into Tuesday's matchup in Florida against the Panthers, a run that includes four goals and is the best stretch for an NHL rookie defensemen since Barry Beck more than three decades ago.
But if the numbers are noteworthy in their own right, what matters more these days is that Shattenkirk has entrenched himself on the Colorado blue line, enough to allow the Avs to feel comfortable about trading away veteran Scott Hannan last week for forward Tomas Fleischmann.
Veteran defenseman Adam Foote says he understands why.
"Shatty seems to have a real good knack for how the game should be played and he does things as a rookie that should take a while to learn," the Avs captain said. "He understands where he is and his position, and he makes the kind of plays that a lot of guys who have played in this league a long time can't make.
"It's a lot of fun to watch a kid like that."
Especially now that Shattenkirk is doing what the Avs hoped he could and would when they drafted him 14th overall out of the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2007. The 21-year-old native of Greenwich, Conn., spent the next three seasons at Boston University, leading the Terriers to the NCAA championship in 2009 while earning conference All-American honors along the way before turning pro following his junior season last year.
"It was the right time for me," he said.
Shattenkirk got his feet wet by playing three games for the Avs' top minor league team last spring, but according to Sacco, didn't play very well in training camp and failed to earn the roster spot when this season began. If it was a setback, it was one that Shattenkirk took in stride.
"I think it was a good learning experience for me to go down and get my game together," Shattenkirk said. "And they told me I'd probably get an opportunity somewhere down the line."
That opportunity came a little earlier than expected if only because Shattenkirk wasn't exactly lighting things up with Lake Erie in the American Hockey League. He was pointless in his first 10 games there. But when Colorado was hit by a rash of injuries along the blue line a month into the season with Foote, Kyle Cuminsky and Ryan Wilson all on the shelf, it opened the door for Shattenkirk to be called up Nov. 4. A few days later Kyle Quincey joined them on the injured list, giving the rookie his shot at not only playing in the NHL, but at making an impact as well.
Shattenkirk has been getting about 20 minutes of ice time with a variety of partners since his arrival from the get-go, and after taking seven games to get his first pro goal, he hasn't looked back.
"My mindset coming in was that I had had to prove something and show them I could play here," Shattenkirk said. "Even if I was going to be sent down, I wanted to make an impression."
So far, he has.