|Mika Zibanejad celebrates after his goal allowed Team Orange to defeat Team Blue 1-0 in the title game of the 3-on-3 tournament that brought down the curtain on Sens development camp (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).
So it wasn't anywhere near the biggest goal of Mika Zibanejad's young life.
The gold-medal winning tally he notched for Sweden at the 2012 world junior hockey championship figures to stand on a pedestal all by itself in that area for quite some time yet.
But still, the Swedish prospect with plenty of flash and dash had reason to smile today after putting one final exclamation point on a Senators development camp that showcased a number of the organization's future stars.
"It's a game-winning goal," the 19-year-old Zibanejad said after wiring a wrister just under the crossbar to clinch top honours for Team Orange in the 3-on-3 tournament that brought the curtain down on the camp at the Bell Sensplex. "It's always fun to score those goals."
Fun indeed it was for Zibanejad, Shane Prince, Corey Cowick, Darren Kramer and Jordan Fransoo, who denied Team Blue a repeat title and secured some bragging rights among their fellow prospects. Whether they'll all be back to defend that crown a year from now — or they're "graduated" from this camp — is another story.
When Senators general manager Bryan Murray and his staff decided they were staying out of the big-dollar bidding for the top available free agents, it was also a signal to the organization's young talent — many of whom were on hand this week — that the door is open for some of them to possibly crack the roster when the Senators assemble for training camp in September.
"We’ve got, I think because of our development camp, a good number of young men who will challenge for a position on this hockey team," Murray said Monday after adding veteran blueliners Marc Methot and Mike Lundin, along with forward Guillaume Latendresse, to the Ottawa mix for the coming season while saying goodbye to a handful of last year's veterans.
Up front, opportunity surely exists for Jakob Silfverberg and Mark Stone — both of whom made their National Hockey League debuts back in April in the Stanley Cup playoffs against the New York Rangers — along with Zibanejad and perhaps Mike Hoffman, the Binghamton Senators' leading scorer in 2011-12.
Young blueliners Mark Borowiecki, named the winner of the hardest-working player award for an unprecedented second straight year at development camp, and Patrick Wiercioch will also get a long look. But as anyone who took part in this week's camp will attest, there are even more contenders emerging on the horizon at all positions.
"Everybody wants to be an NHL player but when they see the competition … this is their competition," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of hockey operations and player development. "These are the guys they’re fighting against to get that spot, whether it’s in Binghamton, whether it’s in Ottawa or whether it’s just earning a contract."
Zibanejad, the sixth overall pick of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, played the first nine games of last season with the Senators before being returned to Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League for the balance of the campaign. He's confident there is a place for him in Ottawa in 2012-13.
"You've got to believe in what you're doing and I believe that I can make it," he said. "You have to have that mindset that you are going to make it. It’s tough, both mentally and physically. You just have to fight every day and fight even harder every day.
"I've got to focus on what I can do ... and make sure I show them that I can make a big impact on this team and try to help them win. That's the big difference."
After a week a hard training both on and off the ice, the 3-on-3 tournament provided just the right finish to the camp — even if only one team could emerge victorious.
"There’s a lot of pride factor," said Lee. "The scrimmage game (last Thursday) is more similar to an NHL game, but the 3-on-3 is a skills competition but with compete (level). If you don’t compete, you can’t do well in that game. There’s a lot of strategy in that game. You can see the experience of the guys who played in that game before. They really shone through."
Added Zibanejad: "It's a fun way and a good way to end this week. It's been a tough week, both mentally and physically. You wake up every morning and you know it's going to be a hard day. But you make sure you do the best you can every day. Even though your hips are sore or your legs are tired, you've just got to do everything you can."