Empty-net goals usually aren't worthy of putting on the highlight reel, but Stars forward prospect Nick Caamano scored one last season that merits consideration.
It was late in Game 6 of the Ontario Hockey League championship series with Caamano's Hamilton Bulldogs leading the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, 4-3. With the Greyhounds pressing for the game-tying goal, one of Caamano's teammates poked the puck from the defensive end into the neutral zone, setting off a race between Caamano and Sault Ste. Marie defenseman Jordan Sambrook. Sambrook, who was hanging back on the play, won the race, but Caamano fought to get the puck back as the two battled into the Sault Ste. Marie zone.
Eventually, Caamano prevailed in the puck battle, diving over a fallen Sambrook to put it into the net from near the bottom of the left circle with 1:58 remaining.
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The goal turned out to be a big one. Sambrook would score 73 seconds later to cut Hamilton's lead to 5-4, but the Bulldogs would hang on for the victory, and Caamano's goal would hold up as the game-winner as his team took Game 6 to secure the OHL championship series and advance to the Memorial Cup.
The empty-net goal also was a sign of how far Caamano had come this season, out there on the ice late in the game helping to protect a lead instead of being a guy whose primary focus was once on the other side of the puck.
"I am a full player now," Caamano said. "The year before I was just offense, I wouldn't say cheating, but not dedicated to my own end."
The change in his game was fueled by a trade within the OHL last season that sent him from a struggling Flint team to a strong, deep Hamilton club that had plenty of scoring throughout the lineup.
"When I got to Hamilton we had nine guys that could go out there in the last minute of the game and could score, but there were very few of us that could go out there in the last few minutes to protect a lead," Caamano said. "I worked my way up and earned my right to be out there in the last minute. That was huge for me."
Caamano, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound left-hand shot who can play either wing, still produced offensively, tallying 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists) in 64 OHL games, including 36 points (13 goals, 23 assists) in 41 games for Hamilton. His .88 points per game ranked sixth on the Bulldogs.
In the OHL playoffs, he finished fourth on the team in scoring with 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 21 games, led the team in shots on goal (80) and tied for the league lead in game-winning goals (4). Three of those game-winners were series-clinching goals as well.
Caamano scored one goal in four games at the Memorial Cup for Hamilton, which went 2-2-0 and finished third in the four-team tournament.
"It was a good experience," Caamano said. "Each round you go on the caliber of play gets higher and higher. In the (OHL) finals, I think, we had 18 guys signed (to NHL contracts), so there were a lot of guys there that are making the next step to pro. The Memorial Cup, it's kind of the best of the best. You want to shine there, but we came up short. Nonetheless, we had a great season."
Stars player development coordinator Rich Peverley saw a lot of Caamano this season, especially after the trade to Hamilton, just a 35-minute drive from Peverley's home base in Ontario.
"He was great," Peverley said. "He started off really well in Hamilton, went through a little bit of a lull and then in the playoffs he was outstanding. He has so many good pro attributes. He skates really well, he is determined, and he works really hard. I have nothing but great things to say about him."
Now, Caamano, a fifth-round pick (146th overall) by the Stars in the 2016 NHL Draft, has his sights on turning pro in 2018-19 after four seasons in the OHL, where he recorded 167 points (83 goals, 84 assists) in 259 games.
"That's definitely my goal, Caamano said. "I don't want to go back to juniors. I want to make the next step, but I know it comes with a lot of hard work and I need to prove that I can stay there. It's not going to be given to me by any means."
Caamano already has had a taste of the pro game. After his season in juniors ended in 2016-17, he joined the Texas Stars and played six regular-season AHL games, picking up three assists. This past season, he was on hand during Texas' run to the Calder Cup Finals. He didn't play but skated with the team's Black Aces.
"It was the Finals, and that's the best hockey you are going to get at that time," Caamano said. "For me, it was nice to see how the guys took care of themselves and even between games at the hotel they are doing the little things. The pace of play was something that jumped out to me; both teams played at a great pace. A team doesn't get to the Finals every year, so it was nice for me to get that experience."
Caamano, who signed an entry-level contract in April 2017, made a strong showing at Dallas' training camp last year before heading back to juniors. He'll look for a repeat this year, but with the goal of sticking around a little longer as he begins his pro career, most likely in Cedar Park with the Texas Stars.
"When I was skating with the Black Aces with Texas, (Caamano) looked like he could step in," Peverley said. "That transition to pro is going to be pretty good for him. He's got a lot of good characteristics. He's got a good future."
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.
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