By Sean Shapiro
It was like being the new kid at school – if you arrived just in time for exams. With the exception of a morning skate, Brett Ritchie didn’t even have a chance to practice with the American League’s Texas Stars before making his 2014 Calder Cup Playoff debut in Game 6 of the second round against the Grand Rapids Griffins May 18.
Nursing an injured ankle back to health, the second-round pick (Dallas, 44th overall in 2011) missed the Stars’ first eight playoff games and hadn’t played since April 13 against the San Antonio Rampage.
Not knowing how the ankle would hold up or how he’d feel jumping into a playoff series against the defending Calder Cup Champions, Ritchie shook off some early jitters and scored in a 7-1 series-clinching victory. “It’s good, it gives you some confidence around the net,” Ritchie said. “I didn’t feel very comfortable around the net at the start of the game, but for that one (goal) to go in, it kind of bounced me back to where I was before I got hurt.”
Ritchie, recapturing his pre-injury form, provided a much-needed boost for Texas as it battled through a seven-game series with the Toronto Marlies to reach the Calder Cup final and a five-game series against the St. John’s IceCaps to win the AHL title. The Orangeville, Ontario native had 11 points in 13 post-season games, two of which came in Tuesday’s 4-3 Game 5 OT win that clinched the Calder Cup for Texas.
Ritchie is more man than boy already, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound power forward who models himself after Dallas captain Jamie Benn, so his return from injury gave AHL Texas a much-needed blunt instrument for playoff warfare. He also brought stability and normalcy back to the Stars’ lineup. With Ritchie sidelined, Texas juggled a myriad of combinations on the second- and third-line right wing. Once he returned, Ritchie worked on the right wing with Chris Mueller and Kevin Henderson for seven games. Then he rejoined his normal line with Mike Hedden and Justin Dowling after Dowling returned from an arm injury in time for Game 7 against Toronto. “He’s a big body and he skates really well, and he’s looked real fresh for not having skated in four or five weeks after injury,” said Stars coach Willie Desjardins before Game 1 of the Calder Cup final. “He’s a real asset and really makes our team better.”
Ritchie’s success at the pro level was instant. It started at the end of the 2012-13 season when he joined Texas after finishing up a stellar junior career with the Niagara IceDogs. Ritchie had six points and got his first taste of AHL hockey in 14 combined regular season and playoff games.
That taste helped Ritchie prepare for his true rookie season and develop early chemistry with Dowling and Hedden, forming Texas’ most consistent line combination throughout 2013-14.
Ritchie finished the regular season with 48 points in 68 games, tying for eighth in the AHL’s rookie scoring race, and gives much of the credit to his undrafted linemates. “I didn’t know who they were when I came here,” Ritchie said. “I only knew about the first- and second-rounders. That’s the way the hockey world is. A lot of guys fly under the radar for a while, but everybody gets their chance and those guys have helped me make the most of it.”
Dowling – who was recently signed to his first NHL contract by Dallas – had 47 points while Hedden finished the regular season with 55. The scoring output gave Texas a dangerous second scoring line after the top unit, which featured AHL MVP Travis Morin and Rookie of the Year Curtis McKenzie. “You look around the league and you see a lot of second-line scoring lines that really didn’t put up the points that we did,” Ritchie said. “I thought we did a pretty good job throughout the year. That’s a testament to our depth.”
The question now is whether Ritchie did so well that he’ll challenge for an NHL roster spot next season. It won’t be long before he gets his shot – alongside brother Nick, who is poised to be a 2014 first-round draft pick.