isn’t sure how long this ride is going to last, but he’s doing everything he can to make an impression during his current stay with the Colorado Avalanche.
Whether it’s scoring a goal, making a solid first pass out of the defensive zone or sticking up for a teammate by dropping the gloves, Gaunce is simply trying to contribute in any way he can.
Recalled from Lake Erie on Feb. 12 in response to Kyle Cumiskey being placed on injured reserve with a head injury, Gaunce appeared in his sixth NHL game Sunday night against the Anaheim Ducks.
A sequence of events early in the first period showed just what Gaunce - who was known at the junior level as a solid two-way defender with a bit of a mean streak - is capable of bringing to the lineup.
Just under seven minutes into the contest, a handful of Avs and Ducks got into a shoving match after Colorado goalie Peter Budaj had frozen the puck. The last Avalanche player to be separated from the pack was Gaunce, who had taken exception to the post-whistle efforts of Jarkko Ruutu and had pinned the Anaheim agitator to the ground.
Gaunce received a two-minute minor for roughing on the play, but he wasn’t done sticking up for his teammates just yet.
At the exact time Gaunce stepped out of the penalty box, Anaheim defenseman Luca Sbisa laid a big hit on Avalanche veteran Milan Hejduk
just a few feet away. Gaunce didn’t have to think twice about stalking Sbisa down in Anaheim’s defensive zone and goading the opposing defender into dropping his gloves.
It was the first NHL fight for Gaunce, who squared off five times at the AHL level earlier this season, including his very first professional contest on Oct. 8 against Syracuse Crunch forward (and Anaheim prospect) Kyle Palmieri.
Quick transitions have been the norm lately for Gaunce, who has seen life move at breakneck speed over the past few weeks.
On Feb. 12, the Sudbury, Ontario native was getting ready to take part in Lake Erie’s contest that night against the Grand Rapids Griffins when he was informed that he had been recalled by the Avalanche. Without having much time to process his thoughts, Gaunce packed his bag, hopped on a flight and joined Colorado in Nashville, where he made his NHL debut that same night against the Predators.
“I think that really helped, because I didn’t have as much time to go over exactly what was happening and let it sink in,” said Gaunce. “It was just plane, plane and game, so that really helped. Going there it was a great atmosphere. After the first shift, I was even more excited to be there.”
Many rookie players say that after they get that first shift out of the way, things settle down and it becomes a matter of just playing hockey. For Gaunce, it took just a little longer.
“I felt like it took a couple shifts actually, just because of how loud the building was and seeing some of the players on the other team who I idolized and tried to watch or mold my game around,” noted the 6-foot-1, 203-pound blueliner. “I really think it took a couple of shifts and then it sunk in.”
Four days after his NHL debut, Gaunce realized a dream by scoring his first career NHL goal – with his parents in attendance, no less – against the Pittsburgh Penguins in his first game at Pepsi Center. The tally came on a wrist shot from the blue line, and went through a screen in front of the net by then-Avalanche forward Chris Stewart.
“It was great to have my parents there. It was a very special moment, and I’m grateful that the organization was so helpful in getting them to Denver for the game,” said Gaunce. “No, I didn’t know it was [my goal] at first. My first shot was blocked, so the second one I just wanted to get it through. Stewy did a great job of screening in front, and I saw the guys start to celebrate, so I knew something good had happened.”
Nobody is sure how long Gaunce’s present recall will last. The Avalanche currently has only six healthy defensemen on its roster, but captain Adam Foote is on the team’s road trip and is expected to be back soon. Shortly after, the team should see the return of Ryan O’Byrne from a severe facial laceration suffered this past Wednesday against Edmonton.
Whatever happens, Gaunce is taking his first NHL stint in a day-by-day fashion right now. He knows things can change at the drop of a hat, so he’s merely trying to make his impact felt while he has a chance.
Consider that mission accomplished.