Name a few centers on the Texas Stars roster. I'm betting you might have mentioned Travis Morin, Justin Dowling, Radek Faksa and maybe even Taylor Peters. Those more observant might have mentioned Scott Glennie or Greg Rallo, even though neither one really plays much center nowadays.
If you're Derek Laxdal, what do you do on the first line when Morin (callup), Dowling and Faksa (injury) are all unavailable? Who will center AHL Rookie of the Year Curtis McKenzie and top prospect Brett Ritchie to fuel the Stars' offense?
Easy: Gemel Smith.
Smith was a fourth round pick of the Stars in 2012 and was just under a point per game player during his past few years in the OHL. In 22 games, he had yet to light the lamp for Texas. He got his first on Friday in a 7-3 loss to San Antonio but got his big chance on Sunday against the Rampage (Florida Panthers) at home.
Heading to the rink Sunday, Smith had no idea he had a chance at the night he was about to have for the Stars. When he arrived for the game, the rookie center found out he would be centering the top line between McKenzie and Ritchie. He cashed in with two goals in the 6-3 victory over the San Antonio Rampage.
"That was my first time," said Smith. "I've never skated on a line with them, not even in practice. It was a great opportunity."
Coach Laxdal praised the young forward for his work over the past month, which set him up for the chance at the top line minutes today.
"He's been playing very well this past month. He's hard on the puck down low and has good speed. We thought he could take a step on that line and play more of a puck possession game. If it works out for him to play in the top six, now we have a guy pushing for extra minutes."
When you have those injuries, Smith's performance is the kind of 'step up' night you've got to have.
"These are games that define the development of your younger players. It was a hard fought game against a big, strong, talented team. It put us just three points back from them. It keeps us in the hunt."
On the road to start the post-holiday schedule last Friday, the Stars dropped a 7-3 contest in San Antonio in which they led on shots 36-18. Starting goaltender Jussi Rynnas stopped just two of the five shots against him and was relieved by Campbell in the final two minutes of the first period. Campbell stopped 9 of 12 shots and took the loss. Texas managed to score three goals, which on any other night should get you a great shot at the win. The goalies did not hold up their end of the bargain, and Texas fell to their I-35 rival on the road.
For San Antonio, it was a banner night. Rocco Grimaldi had a goal and four assists. Quinton Howden had four assist as well. Six Rampage skaters tallied multi-point games in all. Garrett Wilson and Logan Shaw each had two goals. Despite not having any points himself, Shane O'Brien joined Grimaldi on the stat sheet as both had a plus-5 rating in the game. Steven Kampfer was just behind them at plus-4. Dan Ellis stopped 33 of 36 Texas shots against him.
Recent assignee Jamie Oleksiak was minus-3, as were many other Stars on the game. Gemel Smith scored his first career pro goal, one he won't forget but he's sure to wish came with a better final result. Scott Glennie and Matej Stransky also scored for the Stars.
Two teams that combine for just under five goals per game on average scored five between them in the first as the Texas Stars edged the Charlotte Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes) 3-2 in Cedar Park Saturday night. Brett Ritchie potted a hat trick, his second pro trick, including the game-winning goal.
"It's funny," said Coach Laxdal. "I thought we played a better sixty minutes [Friday] night and didn't get the win. Tonight we were less energetic but did get the win."
The big goal scorer agreed, "Last night, [San Antonio was] scoring on every other shot. We had the same thing happen to us tonight. It's a funny game sometimes, but if you put out a good game, you'll get a good result more often than not."
Jussi Rynnas got the win, stopping 20 of 23 shots against. He had started last night as well but was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots. It was a nice rebound win for the big Finn.
As detailed above, the Stars had a tremendous night out of their top line to power the 6-3 victory. Gemel Smith and Brett Ritchie each had a pair while Curtis McKenzie had a goal and an assist.
McKenzie had praise for his new centerman as well, "Getting on a first line at this level is huge for him. It weighs on you when you aren't putting the puck in the net, so it's good to see them go in for him."
With the win, Texas finishes their 3-in-3 weekend with four of six possible points and a seventh place spot in the Conference standings.
The Week Ahead
After playing back-to-back 3-in-3s, the squad gets a week off. Texas will play the Checkers in Charlotte on Saturday and Sunday. They'll make their way to Oklahoma City (Edmonton Oilers) on Tuesday.
Unfortunately, there's a lot to report here. Branden Troock did not play this weekend. Neither did PTO player Taylor Stefishen. Justin Dowling missed two of three on the weekend and Faksa the final game. Jack Campbell is out with injury as well. Matt Mangene missed the last part of the third period on Sunday as he was coughing up blood after blocking a shot. He went to the hospital and was later released.