Colton Gillies can’t see too well out of his left eye, but he’s still been able to find his game when it matters most.
During Game Two of the Houston Aeros’ first-round series sweep over Peoria, the winger got into a scrap with Nathan Oystrick.
“He landed a good one,” Gillies said with a still-bloodshot peeper last Friday. “It’s better now – it was swollen completely shut. Coach (Mike Yeo) told me I couldn’t play because I couldn’t see.”
The Wild’s 2007 first-round draft pick (16th overall) played the following game anyway and wound up scoring two goals, including the game-winner which gave Houston a 3-0 series lead before they ultimately swept Peoria two nights later.
Last Friday during Game One of the Calder Cup’s second-round series against the Milwaukee Admirals, Gillies took a hit from behind, sending him to the ice and drawing a delayed penalty call.
Before the Admirals could gain possession and cease play, the 22-year-old brushed off the hit, jumped quickly to his feet and drove straight to the net, where he scored his third goal in five playoff games.
These instances embody the type of player Gillies has become.
“His game has evolved. He’s a guy that lays it on the line every night,” Yeo said. “He was physical on the forecheck. He was strong getting in there as the first guy. He was creating turnovers. Certainly, he’s a guy that shows what it takes to score goals in the playoffs.”
Gillies, who scored his fourth playoff goal in Game Two, didn’t think it had to be this way. The British Columbia native spent all of the 2008-2009 season up with the Minnesota Wild, where he played 45 games and tallied seven points.
With first-year general manager Chuck Fletcher at the helm in the fall of 2009, he believed the young forward would be best served further developing in the AHL. Admittedly distraught at the time, Gillies was sent to Houston.
He gets it now.
“It really sucked to be sent down here at first, but once I was down here for a while, I started to realize it was the right move,” Gillies said. “I’ve gotten a lot better. I think I’ve found my game and how I need to play down here.”
That’s good news for the Wild, who are faced with important personnel decisions and the prospect of getting younger next season. Gillies is bringing speed, physical play, heavy forechecking, turnovers and character to the Aeros, and he did the same in a short stint with the Wild at the end of the NHL’s regular season.
He appears to be figuring it out, and he attributes his near-readiness for the next step to one thing.
“Coaching,” Gillies said. “They taught me where I need to be and what kind of player I need to be.”
That player needs to be a shutdown forward who makes life miserable for the opposing team’s top line; a player that crashes the net and plays with a chip on his shoulder.
“There was probably a little bit of question, not unlike most young players coming out of junior, what type of player he was going to become,” said Yeo, who led the Aeros from the 2010 cellar to 2011’s second-best AHL record. “Is he going to be a skill guy? Is he going to be a checker? Is he going to be a physical guy?”
What Yeo and Gillies both agree on is where and how he needed to figure that out: by playing big minutes in big situations with Houston.
“This is the perfect place for that to happen,” Yeo said. “You give them the time, you give them experience and you teach them and show them things that play well within their game and I think that he’s more than anything had the character and the wherewithal to take to it.”
Gillies is positioning himself nicely for a 2011-2012 return to the Minnesota Wild, but not before helping the Aeros to what could be an impressive Calder Cup run. The Aeros are even with Milwaukee in their West Division final series, 1-1. The series shifts to Houston for the next three games beginning tonight (Tuesday). For Gillies, the games provide a few more chances to show he’s realized what he needs to do to ensure this is his last run at a Calder Cup, rather than a Stanley Cup.
“He’s starting to find his game,” Yeo said. “He’s starting to realize what it is that he has to do on a nightly basis to be successful.”