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Injury behind him, Karnaukhov finding his groove

by Jason Pirie / Calgary Flames

I just love to play hockey. That’s what I do. I feel better now. I feel like myself again.Pavel Karnaukhov

CALGARY, AB -- This certainly was not the way Pavel Karnaukhov envisioned his sophomore season following a stellar rookie campaign with the Calgary Hitmen.

Having faced his fair share of adversity over the last season and a half – tackling a new language and adjusting to the North American lifestyle – none of it compared to battling through a nagging upper body injury that saw him sidelined for six weeks.

An injury that not only prevented the power forward from stickhandling for over a month but frustrated him to the point that he found it almost impossible to watch games with fellow scratched teammates perched high above in the press box.

“I don’t like to watch the games, I couldn’t watch. The whole thing was too frustrating,” said the 18-year-old Belarussian, who was discouragingly relegated to the press box for an extended stretch of 17 games.

After posting 20 goals and 42 points last season – his first on North American ice – Karnaukhov was selected in the fifth round (136th overall) by the Calgary Flames at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

Everything was going as planned.

It also appeared that it was only about to get better.

Karnaukhov pieced together an impressive first-ever NHL camp, where he played in all three games at the 2015 Young Stars Classic, before recording two goals and one assist in a Flames’ 5-1 preseason win over the University of Calgary Dinos.

“We couldn’t find anything negative about him,” said Flames director of amateur scouting Tod Button, shortly following the draft.

Game 36 in Medicine Hat Friday night, however, marked the halfway point of the season for the Hitmen, and Karnaukhov had suited up for only 19 of those with just four goals to his credit.

Feeling re-energized and with a clean bill of health, though, Karnaukhov can now finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I just love to play hockey. That’s what I do,” he said. “I feel better now. I feel like myself again.”

With fellow import and team leading scorer Radel Fazleev away in Moscow priming for the 2016 World Junior Championship, a back playing like his vigorous self Karnaukhov is earning top line minutes while centering Tyler Mrkonjic and Jakob Stukel.

Stukel, who leads the Hitmen with 19 goals, arrived in Calgary via trade from Vancouver while Karnaukhov was still grudgingly on the shelf. The fleet-footed winger is only now realizing the potential of his teammate.

“We haven’t played together for very long, but we have definitely started to get some line chemistry going,” said Stukel, who notched his second career hat trick this week against Red Deer while playing alongside Karnaukhov. “He’s a physical player who can really work the puck down low and he sees the game really well. He’s a fun player to play with, that’s for sure.”

Needless to say, the hulking 6-foot-3, 210-pound centre has found his rhythm since receiving clearance to play, having registered two goals and six assists in the 10 games since returning.

An encouraging sign for the Hitmen, who – without Fazleev and high-scoring defenceman Travis Sanheim in the fold due to their respective national junior team commitments – are heavily counting on scoring-by-committee.

“As a team we are playing well, so it’s nice to be part of it again,” said Karnaukhov. “But it doesn’t matter who scores the goals, as long as someone from our team is scoring is all that matters. For me, I’m just happy to be back on the ice.”

Not to mention, as far away as possible from the press box.

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