Looking For Inspiration
Evan Fuller and Mario Bliznak are embroiled in a battle every bit as fierce as a back-alley bare-knuckler, but the end goal isn't to knock their opponent out... well, not in the literal sense anyway.
The two Canucks' prospects are fighting for the WHL title.
Fuller's Prince George Cougars upended the heavily favoured Everett Silvertips in the second round to advance to the WHL Western Conference finals. They're now trying to claw their way past Bliznak's Vancouver Giants.
The winner not only gets bragging rights, but a foothold in the long uphill climb to a much bigger prize - a shot at making the NHL.
Both Bliznak and Fuller had fairly decent regular seasons, improving on their numbers from the previous year, but have seemingly found another gear in the post-season.
"It's still hockey," says Fuller, who scored a on a pretty deflection in game one. "You've still got to keep it simple."
As a Canucks draft pick (197th in 2006), Fuller admits there's added pressure playing in front of a Vancouver audience, but it takes a back seat to helping the Cougars advance.
Fuller has nine points (3-6-9) in 14 games following Wednesday's 3-2 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, and sits sixth in team scoring. Those are impressive numbers for the Williams Lake centre taken in the seventh round.
"I was just happy to get drafted," he said. "Anything can happen. I've just got to stick to the game plan, work as hard as I can and hopefully good things happen for me. Hopefully I can make it up [to the NHL] and get in a couple of games."
THE REST IS HISTORY
Bliznak's in an eerily similar situation. Drafted 205th overall in 2005, the 6'0" Slovak with the shifty skates is a long shot to don a Canucks uniform in the NHL, at least if you go by the stats. It's not very often that a pick that late makes a wild charge up the depth charts.
Bliznak's not one to dwell on history.
After 47 regular season games this year Bliznak scored eight goals and was 13th in team scoring. He's scored five times in the post-season already and is one point behind linemate Wacey Rabbit for the fourth highest point total on the Giants.
Those are sharp numbers for a two-way forward who's not exactly renowned for his offensive touch.
But a bigger stage means more NHL scouts, and with the Memorial Cup just around the corner, both players know these playoffs are a chance to open eyes.
"Every round you go, it gets harder and harder," said Bliznak. "[When we get to the] Memorial Cup, there'll be lots of pressure on us because the whole country will be watching on TV."
For Bliznak, this opportunity may be the last chance he gets to make an impression at the junior level. He will be an overage player next season and, with his import player status, he'll likely turn pro next season.
As for Fuller, his immediate future may be clearer than Bliznak's. The Cougars aren't guaranteed the hometown berth in the Memorial Cup tournament like Bliznak's Giants. Lose and he's out, though a year younger than his Slovakian counterpart, Fuller can return to junior hockey next season.
LATE IS GREAT
Of course he'd prefer to follow in the footsteps of another late-round Canucks' draft pick who made the jump from the WHL to GM Place in under a year.
Danish import Jannik Hansen skated for the Portland Winterhawks in last season's WHL playoffs before being knocked out by the Giants.
Drafted 287th in 2004, nobody was fumbling to pencil Hansen into the Canucks' line-up this year despite a strong playoff showing.
He opened a few eyes in his first year with Manitoba and was a surprise call-up in game two against the Dallas Stars after Matt Cooke pulled a groin in the opening game of the series.
"I saw [Hansen] and I said to myself that guy looks pretty familiar,'" said Fuller, who watches every possible Canucks' game his schedule will allow. "He's playing well and that's really good to see."
Both Bliznak and Fuller are naturally inclined to follow the escapades of the Canucks given that their rights belong to the club, but Hansen's promotion adds an even more compelling storyline.
"Last year I played against him in the WHL and now I'm seeing him on TV playing in the NHL," said Bliznak.
Hansen's living proof that being late-round draft pick amount to nothing more than a number next to your picture in the media guide.
"It doesn't matter what round you are [drafted in] but how you play after the draft," said Bliznak. "[Hansen] was a ninth round pick and he doesn't seem like he's a ninth round pick. [Draft position] isn't important. He's playing great."
"Hansen's got a lot of speed. He's hitting people, he's got good energy and he's playing very well with Bulis and Morrison. It's great to see him."
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are an awfully big stage and Hansen's making the most of it. Both Fuller and Bliznak have no problems relating.
The winner of the WHL's Western Conference Finals not only moves on to battle for the WHL title belt, but they get a shot at shining in front of their hometown scouts and perhaps becoming the next Danish Destroyer.
Of course they have to get through each other first.
The Vancouver Giants lead the Prince George Cougars 3-1 in the WHL Western Conference Final best-of-seven series. Game 5 will be played on Friday, April 27th in Prince George. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, will be played on April 29th, and 30th, respectively.