As rapidly as Justin Faulk has risen through the ranks, he never seems to have much trouble adjusting to his new surroundings.
The Hurricanes’ 19-year-old defensive prospect was given a tough task for his professional debut on Wednesday night, stepping in to Game 4 of the American Hockey League Charlotte Checkers’ first-round series against the Hershey Bears. With the Checkers heading into the game trailing 2-1 in the series, throwing a rookie into the fire isn’t exactly a textbook move.
Then again, Faulk, who has played in a World Junior Championship and won an NCAA championship since being drafted by the Hurricanes last June, may not be the average rookie.
“He’s a confident kid,” said Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels. “He didn’t look nervous before the game, and he’s played a lot of big-time hockey this year from the World Juniors to the championship he just won. You roll that into tonight’s game and he was a big plus for us tonight.”
“They had the confidence to put me in there, and I think I answered it pretty well,” said Faulk.
Faulk did look comfortable in his debut, helping the Checkers to a 3-2 victory that tied the series heading into Game 5 on Friday night in Charlotte. A big scorer as a college freshman at the University of Minnesota-Duluth to the tune of 33 points in 39 games, he was held without a point but instead made his mark with his steady defensive presence and solid work along the boards in his own zone – areas that are not always a given from point-producing blue liners.
“That’s part of what I like most about the game – battling in the corners,” said Faulk. “I really try to take pride in my game in the defensive zone. I don’t like to get beat down there.”
That being said, Faulk did nearly open the scoring on an odd-man rush with Zach Boychuk and Jon Matsumoto in the first period. However, his shot went just wide – something that was a common occurrence for a Checkers team that wasn’t officially credited with a shot on goal until the game was 15 minutes old. He also made a nice pass from the point to Matsumoto in the second, but Hershey goaltender Braden Holtby made a good save.
“For the most part our back end is pretty stay-at-home, and all of the sudden you see someone like him jumping up in the play on his second or third shift,” said Daniels. “He jumped up and he’s flying.”
As is the case with just about any playoff game, things got physical, particularly near the end of the second period when eight penalties were called in the final five minutes. Rather than find that intimidating, Faulk, who did acknowledge that players are bigger and faster at the professional level, was actually somewhat relieved.
“With the visor on (instead of the full face shield required in college), there’s not as many guys running around just trying to smoke you and kill you in the corners. Here when they hit you they try to keep their hands down a little bit, which is nice.”
Nice. If that’s as rattled as Faulk gets, he should do well for the remainder of the Checkers playoff run. After that, he may be looking to make his next step just as quickly.