By Kevin Mitchell,
He endured a coaching change, scored six goals, was a healthy scratch a few times, earned loads of key playoff ice, won 50 per cent of his faceoffs against Sidney Crosby and took a break to captain Canada to a world junior hockey gold medal.
Oh, and he made the TSN Plays of the Night for eating a hamburger thrown on the ice in honour of Ottawa Senators teammate Andrew Hammond.
Year one in the NHL featured a little bit of everything for ever-smiling Curtis Lazar, who began his hockey career in Salmon Arm.
“Highs and lows, a roller-coaster ride,” summed up the 20-year-old forward. “You have to pinch yourself too because you get to the point where this is the pinnacle of hockey, this is every kid’s dream to make it to the NHL. For me, to do it at the age of 19 was pretty cool.
“You don’t know what to expect going in. Lots of trial and error. You’re going to fail some days, you’re going to succeed the others, but you learn pretty quick what it takes to play in the league and what it’s all about. You get treated like gold off the ice.”
Lazar, whose birthday is in February, finished with 15 points, 14 penalty minutes and was a plus-1. He knows bigger stats will come in time and he’s putting the work in this summer to get faster and stronger.
“I’m renting an apartment in Kelowna for the summer and I’ll be working with a trainer and skating with other NHL guys (CNC Centre). It will be kind of cool this summer because they’ll know who I am.”
That perma-grin you saw Lazar wear with the Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings is still there with the Senators.
“I know you’re out there playing with men and guys are a little bit older, but inside we’re all boys at heart. And it’s no different than any teams you have in minor hockey growing up, or junior. We’re out there having fun, playing the game we love, and it’s tough to beat. I wanna enjoy it all and soak it up.”
A first-round draft pick – 17th overall – of the Sens two years ago, Lazar compares his status to veteran Kings’ captain Dustin Brown, who was chosen 13th overall by Los Angeles in 2003.
“Dustin Brown had one goal and five points (31 games) his rookie year with L.A. and played some in the AHL,” said Lazar. “If I can follow in his footsteps, I’d be happy.”
Brown, who plays a similar physical style to Lazar, has since registered five 20-plus goal seasons, including a 33-snipe show.
Lazar loved playing for Paul MacLean and was sad to see him get fired as head coach in early December.
“Coach MacLean, he was awesome to me right off the bat, he really helped me out getting my feet wet in the NHL. It was a real eye-opener seeing a move like that happen so early in the season. Coach (Dave) Cameron came in and he was kind of the good assistant coach that everyone went to, so he had to change a little bit and we knew that.
“He had a couple of animated freakouts on the bench during TV timeouts but you could see how poised he is throughout he playoffs. There is never a sense of panic with him and that rubbed off on our team. Even being down 3-0 to Montreal, we still knew we had a chance and we kept on clawing away. Unfortunately, Carey Price (of the Canadiens) was out there. It’s a good spot to be in, knowing Dave Cameron is gonna be back next year. It’s a big sense of confidence for our group.”
Robbed of a goal that was clearly his early in his rookie campaign, Lazar registered his first NHL goal Dec. 15 against the Sabres, a typical whack-and-hack in the crease beauty. He finished the second half strong, pocketing three goals in a week as the Sens went on a fabulous run to make the playoffs.
“I saw big strides in my game after the world juniors. I was more confident out there finding a home with (Jean-Gabriel) Pageau and (Erik) Condra. When you get familiar on the ice and comfortable, it does help you out. You can play more of your game. The run we went on with (Hammond) The Hamburglar and just the way we fought our way into the playoffs, it was a season I’ll never forget.
“I think we got the people of Ottawa excited, and even around the league, people are taking note that the Ottawa Senators are not pushovers anymore.”