In the Texas Stars’ second-to-last regular season game on April 19, Curtis McKenzie’s big smile lit up the Cedar Park Center video board from the penalty box after a fight with Houston’s Dan DaSilva.
That smile turned into laughter when he saw himself on the video board — prompting a loud and enthusiastic response from the home crowd.
“I didn’t know about the camera being (on me) at first, it just kind of caught me at the right time,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie and his teammates return to the Cedar Park Center on Wednesday for the first time since that weekend in April. Now in the midst of a first-round, best-of-five playoff series with the Milwaukee Admirals, Stars fans could get used to seeing McKenzie as a staple of the organization.
After finishing a four-year college career with Miami this season, McKenzie was signed to an amateur tryout contract on April 4, before signing a two-year entry level deal with the franchise one week later.
In his first professional game on April 6, McKenzie fought Hamilton’s Kyle Hagel — his first fight in four years since fighting isn’t allowed in college hockey.
“Back in junior hockey at Penticton, I liked to tussle here and there back then,” McKenzie said. “I think that’s part of my game — I’ll drop the mitts every now and again. It was nice getting the first one out of the way, and I haven’t gotten clocked too badly yet.”
McKenzie’s tenacity and physical play since joining the Stars has impressed some of the veterans on the team, including veteran enforcer Luke Gazdic, who has been paired on the same line with the rookie multiple times in the past three weeks.
“I’ve been in his ear a lot, actually,” Gazdic said. “I really didn’t know he was that gritty and intense, and that’s great to see. It helps me a lot and helps the team build on that. … He’s asked me a couple things about scrapping here, and what he should be doing.”
Gazdic also has provided real-life examples of how physical play and fighting can protect teammates. During Saturday’s Game 2 loss at Milwaukee, the Admirals’ Michael Liambas delivered a late hit to Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak after skating full speed from center ice.
Moments later, Gazdic sparred with Liambas, defending his teammate and winning the fight with the Admirals forward.
While the fights have made Gazdic a crowd favorite at the Cedar Park Center, the physicality and tenacity during the flow of play for both players could be a key for the Stars in winning the series.
Goal-scoring was at a premium in the first two games when Stars goalie Christopher Nilstorp and Admirals goalie Magnus Hallberg combined to stop 112 of 118 shots at the Bradley Center, and creating extra chances with physical play could be the difference.
“When we’re getting pucks behind their (defense) and you got not one, but two guys coming after you all night, that’s when it starts to get tough for other teams,” Gazdic said.
STARS VS. ADMIRALS
Game 1: Stars, 3-2
Game 2: Admirals, 2-0
Game 3: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Cedar Park Center
Game 4: 7:30 Friday, Cedar Park Center
Game 5: 7 p.m. Saturday, Cedar Park Center (if needed)