— It was all going so well. Perfectly, even.
In early October, Austin Czarnik was a part of the most exciting offensive duo in the American Hockey League. Together, he and Frank Vatrano were explosive. They had been explosive during rookie camp, during their stays at Boston’s main camp, and then at Providence’s training camp. There wasn’t an AHL goalie, it seemed, who could thwart them, as evidenced by one particularly notable game against Portland, when at least one of them either scored or assisted on each of Providence’s six goals.
Then, just a few days later, it all came to a halt.
“I got smoked,” Czarnik said with a grin. “Real bad.”
On Oct. 16, four games into his first professional season, Czarnik was breaking the puck out of his zone. He dished to Vatrano, and suddenly, he was on his back.
“[The Bridgeport defender] came out of nowhere and just pretty much blindsided me, kind of,” Czarnik said. “I didn’t see him, so it was just tough.”
The hit left the 5-foot-9, 160-pound center with a shoulder injury that would keep him out of the lineup for nearly a month. Suddenly, things weren’t going so perfectly.
But Czarnik was not your average NHL prospect dealing with the first major injury of his career. He didn’t dwell. In fact, he doesn’t know how to dwell. He just shrugged that injured shoulder and waited for it to heal so he could get back to doing what he does best.
“That’s a part of the game; you can’t really control it,” Czarnik said of getting hit. “For me, it was just getting back and just focusing on what I do best every single day on the ice. For me, it was nothing hard. Things happen.”
There have been young players who have allowed themselves to become derailed by injuries, or by demotions from the big club, or by positional changes. Not this one. He will even say it himself: He’s tough to rattle. And that — just as much as his playmaking ability and his speed — should serve him well as he keeps pushing toward the NHL.
On Nov. 11, just under four weeks post-collision, Czarnik was back on the ice and back in the lineup for the P-Bruins. In three games since his return, he has tallied a goal and an assist with a plus-1 rating.
“I learned from [the injury],” Czarnik said. “I’ve come back probably just as good, or better. I struggled the first game a little bit, but I think my last two games I’ve been really able to control the puck a lot more and use that as a tool of mine. I think overall, my last two games have been some of my better games, even though I got one point.
“Defensively, I’ve been pretty consistent with the last two games, and that’s probably one of my biggest focuses I need to work on — just focus on that and try to work on that.”
The lineup Czarnik returned to on Nov. 11, however, looked decidedly different from the one he left behind in October. Gone were Frank Vatrano, who was recalled to Boston on Nov. 6, and Alex Khokhlachev, who broke his finger on Nov. 7. Seth Griffith missed the first chunk of the season after sustaining a preseason knee injury, then he suffered a concussion last Wednesday.
Czarnik’s comeback from the shoulder injury would mark the first time in his short P-Bruins career that he would play without Vatrano. In the seven-game sample for which they were linemates, their chemistry was obvious. It was obvious all during rookie camp and training camp, too, when they were rarely separated. Providence Head Coach Bruce Cassidy noticed their chemistry. So did Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney and Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien.
All of them, at one point or another, commented on it: Czarnik was the playmaker and Vatrano was the scorer, and together, they equalled offensive firepower.
“I think it's good because we always know where each other are at,” Czarnik said. “I know when he’s expecting the puck, and that type of thing, so obviously, I think it’s a special thing, but I feel like you can build a decent amount of chemistry with anyone if you understand how guys play. And me and Frankie really understood how each other play, so it just makes it that much easier, and it just makes it look that much better.”
As expected, Czarnik is far from rattled by the prospect of producing without Vatrano. For him, finding chemistry boils down to one simple concept: “You can pretty much find chemistry with anybody as long as you just get them the puck.”
Czarnik has always been a pass-first center. That, essentially, makes him any winger’s best friend.
“Me and Frankie were able to do that: Obviously, he was able to score goals, so it was a lot easier and made it look a lot better,” he said. “Now, I’ve got Griff on my line, so obviously he can make plays — we both can make plays. So it should be the same type of thing, hopefully.”
Just because Vatrano isn’t in Providence anymore doesn’t mean Czarnik hasn’t been keeping up with him. Quite the opposite. He was just as happy as anybody to see his buddy get his first NHL recall, and ever since, he has been watching from afar.
“I’ve been real impressed,” Czarnik said. “He’s doing what he needs to do — he’s getting his shot off, he’s getting 4-5 shots a game, and that’s probably the biggest thing that they want from him: Just be an offensive guy who brings a lot of high energy every single night, being a younger guy.”
Thus far, life in Boston is working for Vatrano. And in Providence, once again, it’s working for Czarnik.
After he was assigned to Providence toward the end of Boston’s training camp, Czarnik was still plenty convinced that life in Boston would work out for him somewhere down the line, too. He didn’t know when it would be. He still doesn’t know when it will be. But he is certain of one thing: The shoulder injury won’t impact his future. He won’t let it. It may have stolen a month of his first pro season from him, but he isn’t worried.
He also isn’t planning on changing the way he plays, even though he may be on the smaller side of pro players. Hits happen no matter who you are — no matter how young or old you are, no matter how big or small you are. They are part of the game. They’re going to happen.
Czarnik’s fearlessness has been one of his biggest calling cards up to this point, and one injury isn’t going to change that.
“I think I’ve just got to keep doing the same thing I do, and obviously, injuries happen, are prone to happen,” he said. “A hit — you can’t really defend yourself, no matter what the situation is, if you don’t see it coming. It’s just a part of the game.
“But I think for myself, I’ve just go to keep doing the things that I’ve been doing, and then obviously, I need to keep on shooting the puck. That’s one of the things they told me to focus on, so [I’ve] just got to keep on doing that.”
Particularly now that Vatrano — who departed for Boston as the AHL’s leading goal scorer — and Khokhlachev are out of the lineup.
Coming into this season, Czarnik may have been focused on being the playmaker. Now, that is going to have to change, at least for now — but it’s no big deal. It never is. If he has to be the scorer, he will be.
“I have no problem with that,” he said. “In college, I pretty much had to do a lot of it myself. I had two other good players, but a lot of it was on me there, so I’ve been used to it for a couple years now. I look forward to it every single game.”
“And obviously, we still have Griff, so Griff’s probably the top guy over me — let’s be honest,” he added with a grin. “He’ll be back, and he’ll be the top guy over me, but we’ll be together and I think we’ll work really well.”
And somewhere down the line, his opportunity will come, just like Vatrano’s did. But right now, he’s not worried about that. He’ll just focus on what got him here.
“People get opportunities,” he said, “and I’ve just got to keep on working at it. It’s not my time. Everything happens for a reason.”