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FUTURE WATCH: Big Cat breaking through

Bakersfield Condors defenceman Griffin Reinhart has been playing solid hockey since the Condorstown Outdoor Classic

by Paul Gazzola /

Griffin Reinhart busted his goal slump in epic fashion.

In overtime at the Condorstown Outdoor Classic on January 7, after thwarting a partial 2-on-1 from a pair of encroaching Ontario Reign skaters, the Bakersfield Condors defenceman put his head down and turned the puck up ice towards the offensive zone.

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With a step on Reign rearguard Paul LaDue, Reinhart crossed the blueline and wasted little time in releasing a wrist shot far side past netminder Jack Campbell.

It was Reinhart's first goal of the season and it proved to be the spark he needed to heat up.

Before the outdoor overtime marker, the defenceman nicknamed "Big Cat" had no goals and four assists in 18 regular season outings with Bakersfield. In the 12 matches since, he's lit the lamp four more times and added three assists for seven points.

"It just happened to be a spark, I guess, and maybe got the luck headed my direction," said Reinhart. "But it definitely helps. Once you get that first one, you're not gripping your stick too tight and you can kind of relax and loosen up a bit and I think that's what I did. That's what I got to continue to do down the road here."

Reinhart's performance of late has been stellar and many are taking notice. The fourth-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft had high expectations since the New York Islanders selected him. The projections then increased when at the 2015 NHL Draft, the Oilers moved a first and second-round pick - 16th and 33rd overall - for the former Edmonton Oil King. Reinhart's always been held to a high standard.

Contributing to his slow start this season was a nagging back injury - exacerbated by long travel hours - that has since been alleviated by the Condors staff. Reinhart's been able to skate without pain, leading to his on-ice proficiency.

Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming is witnessing the evolution before his very eyes and can identify the reason for his progress.

"He's more engaged in every situation of the game," Fleming said. "He's more engaged physically, he's more engaged in the rush, he's more engaged in D-zone coverage, he's more engaged in his overall game which was a big part of where Griff had to get. He sees that he's starting to realize it."

Video: CONDORS | Reinhart's Overtime Winner

Reinhart's overtime winner proves as much and was the catalyst in his enlightenment.

Fleming isn't the only one. Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Peter Chiarelli was in Bakersfield to take in a few games recently. He watched the Condors play the Stockton Heat in a back-to-back series. Reinhart made a statement, racking up a goal and two assists with Chiarelli in attendance. It left a good impression on the general manager.

"He's played very well," said Chiarelli. "I had a good meeting with him when I was down there. He's very assertive, he's moving the puck, he's putting up points, he's joining the rush and he's made a lot of strides."

Reinhart was unaware of Chiarelli's comments but he did note that their meeting was constructive.

"In the meeting I had with him, it was positive," he said. "It was quick, it was straight to the point. It was a lot different mood than last year, where I had to play more aggressive and assertive and play better."

Hearing the praise only keeps the fire lit for Reinhart.

"It's pretty encouraging."

Reinhart didn't make the Oilers this season out of training camp. It was dispiriting but likely assisted in him realizing what he needs to do to breakthrough. In his exit meeting before heading for Bakersfield, the cat came out of the bag.

"At the end of training camp, we talked to him," said Chiarelli. "I thought he had a disappointing training camp. We told him and said, 'You've got to go down and focus on your game.'"

An emphasis on adding more confidence and impact every time he were to take the ice was imperative. Being more assertive, making sound plays, being a catalyst for his team both defensively and offensively were discussed.

"We mentioned some of the things I just mentioned and he's done it, and he's been terrific at it," said Chiarelli.

Reinhart took the opportunity to take a step back, reflect internally how to proceed and ensure he could facilitate the requisite changes.

"I had to kind of hit the reset button and realize that what I was doing, it wasn't working," Reinhart said. "Needed to figure out what was going on so I just kind of reset my attitude, took it one day at a time."

As it stands now, it looks like it worked.

The Condors will continue their pursuit of a playoff spot as a team but the emergence of Reinhart, alongside his defence partner Mark Fayne, will be crucial.

"Right now, we're about a .500 club and to make the playoffs we'll have to do better than that," said Fayne. "Griff's going to be a big part of that."

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