It was one smooth motion that brought the crowd to its feet.
On the doorstep of the Adirondack Phantoms crease, Richard Panik snatched the puck out of the air, set it down, and tapped the puck into the net, providing the Syracuse Crunch with a 5-0 second period lead at the Onondaga County War Memorial Saturday.
The effortless looking play was all instinct for Panik.
“The game is going so quick and fast, so you don’t have time to think about anything,” he said.
With 12 points over 14 games in his second year pro, the Slovakian winger has become accustomed to finding the back of the net. It just seems more often than not it’s in a big situation.
“I just try to play hard every shift,” Panik said. “If you play hard, good things happen. I’m glad I scored an important goal, but I have to start focusing on normal goals.”
Normal is relative.
Panik’s first goal of the season seemed far from it. An attempted cross-pass deflected off a Senators defenseman, capping a Syracuse rally that turned a five-goal deficit into a 6-5 overtime victory in Binghamton last month.
A few weeks later, in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Panik registered a pair of assists against the Hamilton Bulldogs. The Lightning’s 2009 second-rounder shined under the bright lights, with Syracuse head coach Jon Cooper calling him the best player on the ice.
“Richard Panik has got unique talent, not just for this league, but the National Hockey League,” Cooper said. “He’s a physical specimen that can skate like the wind. He’s got power, he can hit, and he’s got stick skills above almost anybody that plays the game. It’s pretty impressive.”
Cooper, who coached Panik during his rookie season with the Norfolk Admirals last season, has seen the highs and lows – as well as the progress – in the 21-year-old’s game.
“The knock on Panik growing up was that you’d see signs of it, and then you wouldn’t for a long time,” Cooper said. “I think the only thing keeping him out of the NHL is being inconsistent. He’s getting consistency down.”
Despite being one of Cooper’s key players this year, Panik frequently found himself watching Norfolk games from the stands last season.
“It was hard at the beginning, because I didn’t have a good NHL camp and I had to fight for a spot on the AHL team,” he said. “I didn’t play much at the beginning of the season. I’d play like one shift the one game, then I’d be a healthy scratch for two.”
With midseason injuries taking their toll of the Admirals, Panik began to see more ice time. He recorded 11 points in January, easily outpacing the six he collected in the previous three months combined.
The 6-1, 208 pounder became a mainstay in the Norfolk lineup, and went on to score 41 points in 64 regular season games. He added six points in 18 playoff games, but none stood out like his second round series-clinching goal against the Connecticut Whale.
After taking a deflected slap shot to the grill in the second period, Panik returned in overtime with a pair of chipped teeth and more than two dozen stitches. On a breakaway, he faked backhand and slid the puck on his forehand past Connecticut goalie Cameron Talbot.
Norfolk followed with sweeps of the St. John’s IceCaps and the Toronto Marlies to win the Calder Cup.
While Panik’s rookie year ended better than he ever expected, his sophomore season began quietly with three points over the first seven games. He has turned it around in November, and is currently riding a seven-game point streak.
“I’m getting better every game, so I can see some progress,” Panik said. “I just have to work harder and keep it up.”
The goals have started to become more normal, like the one against the Phantoms Saturday.
“He keeps raising the bar for himself,” Cooper said. “When he came in with low expectations, we didn’t expect a whole ton of things out of him. Now we have his expectations to a point where any little slip up is a disappointment with us. Has he been 100 percent consistent all year? Of course not, but has he been better than I’ve ever seen him? There’s no question.”
Note: With four points (2 goals) in three games this week, Panik wins our Prospect of the Week award for the week ending November 19. Panik, ranked No. 10 in the Lightning organization by BoltProspects.com, projects as a physical scoring winger at the NHL level, capable of highlight reel goals and hits.