DENVER — It took less than two seconds Thursday night for the puck to be knocked off Alex DeBrincat’s stick, then nudged ahead by Erik Gustafsson toward Dylan Sikura.
In that blink of an eye, Sikura slowed the game down and assessed the situation. He saw Gustafsson making a break for it while two Winnipeg defenders were pinching at the point. He saw DeBrincat veering off to his right into an open area of the ice. And he saw the future — a quick pass to DeBrincat would mean a breakaway for Gustafsson. So Sikura made a nifty little one-touch pass through traffic right to DeBrincat, who promptly hit Gustafsson in stride for the breakaway and a goal.
Turns out, playing with NHL-caliber players is pretty fun.
“That kind of play doesn’t really happen at the college level,” Sikura said before making his second NHL appearance Friday against the Colorado Avalanche. “Maybe if I give that to someone at the college level, they just chip it out or something like that. But you give it to [DeBrincat] and he finds a guy and he scores. If you’re able to make some plays here, you get rewarded.”
Sikura’s NHL debut was overshadowed by Brent Seabrook’s 1,000th-game ceremony, Anton Forsberg’s pregame injury and accountant Scott Foster’s emergency-goaltending appearance. But Sikura’s excellent start — two assists and four shots on goal in just less than 14 minutes — was easily the most significant development of the night.
Before the game, Sikura admitted that he was just as curious as everybody else was to see how his skills would translate at the NHL level. Well, he looked awfully fluent in NHL hockey right away. It’s a major confidence boost for the 22-year-old Northeastern product, who hopes to use these last five games as a springboard into next season, when he’s expected to play a top-nine role and be a contributor right away.
He skated on the second line with fellow newbie Victor Ejdsell and DeBrincat, who has taken Sikura under his wing at the ripe old age of 20.
“It’s definitely encouraging,” Sikura said. “It took a couple of shifts to get the nerves out, but after that, I was able to play my game and try to make some plays out there. Having [DeBrincat] on my line was pretty nice, just being able to talk to him throughout the game.”
With all the new guys entering the lineup, coach Joel Quenneville has been trying to put them in the best position to succeed and get confidence quickly. So he made a point of putting Sikura with another skill player in DeBrincat. It was a bonus that the two know each other from prospect camps and another camp in Sweden.
“I thought he handled the puck well, he saw a lot of plays, and had good patience and play recognition,” Quenneville said. “We’ll try to get him in that type of situation. And defensively, I thought he adapted pretty well to how we have to play.”
The wild night actually helped alleviate some of the pressure on Sikura. Between Seabrook’s ceremony, Forsberg’s injury and Collin Delia’s cramps that led to Foster’s memorable 14-minute stint in the NHL, Sikura was able to lose himself in the craziness of the evening and not dwell too much on the nerves.
Sikura called it “a sports night to remember,” and that only continued after the game, when he got to go on his first big-league road trip. He got a kick out of the bus driving right up to the tarmac at O’Hare after the game, boarding an all-first-class private jet, then checking into a five-star hotel in Denver. He’s rooming with Vinnie Hinostroza, who became good friends with Sikura’s brother, Tyler, in Rockford.
“It’s been even crazier than first 24 hours,” he said. “It’s been awesome. I could get used to it, that’s for sure.”