Detroit — The goal spurred lots of chatter.
Tyler Bertuzzi collected the puck along the left wing in the Red Wings end Thursday, looked up ice and launched a pop-up pass in the direction of Teemu Pulkkinen. The puck landed several feet in front of the defending American Hockey League goal and points champion and bounced fortuitously, allowing Pulkkinen to veer slightly toward the net and take it mostly in stride.
Moments later, when Pulkkinen successfully finished the play, the exultation on both players’ faces and the roar produced by the Joe Louis Arena crowd said it all.
A fine offensive play of the sort Wings fans might expect from one of the vaunted playmaking talents on the team, it was not something much expected from Bertuzzi. In fact, given the player the 20-year-old was just a couple of seasons ago, it was an utter revelation.
When he showed up at the Wings prospect camp the first day in July 2013, Bertuzzi immediately got into a fight that seriously injured a man who became his teammate in Grand Rapids last season, defenseman Nick Jensen. It was the way Bertuzzi thought he would make the NHL.
Some players evolve. Bertuzzi seems to be accomplishing it as quickly as a Marine executing a crisp about-face.
“He’s been way better than I thought he was going to be,” said Jeff Blashill, who coached Bertuzzi at Grand Rapids for 16 games last season, including the AHL playoffs, after Bertuzzi played a fourth season in juniors with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League.
“We had a little sampling of him the previous summer in development camp, and coming into last year I didn’t really know what to expect. I heard he had a real good year.
“Kris Draper, who I know was impactful in drafting him, said he had played really well coming in. But he’s been better.”
For Bertuzzi, the sparkling assist on the goal was more a matter of aw, shucks.
“That was just a dramatic I had nothing else to do,” he said, describing his recognition of the play and his actions in the moment.
“And I saw Pulky skating hard down the wing, and I just tried to flick it high into a space — not to get icing, but just to try to get it to where he would be and, you know, he skated right into it.”
Regardless, the change from the 16-year-old tough guy who scored six goals in 61 games in 2011-12 to the 19-year-old resolute, gritty forward who scored 43 in 68 games last season in the Ontario Hockey League has a lot to do with the two seasons in between.
Bertuzzi fought a lot and learned: It is not always the other guy who gets hurt.
“I think after a few of my injuries, I needed to put my game at a different level,” he said. “Because I wasn’t going to fight, anymore. I didn’t want to get hurt, anymore.
“I just focused a lot on my hockey and my skills, how to contribute offensively. And working hard on and off the ice, you know, it paid off.”
It is not as if he is softer in his aggressive approach to the game and his willingness to invade and occupy so-called dirty areas of the ice. Bertuzzi still packs plenty of mettle and sandpaper.
Asked to identify his attributes as a player, Bertuzzi opened his workingmen’s tool chest and described the wrenches and ratchets.
“I feel like I’m a two-way forward, both offensive and defense, and I like to muck it up down low, too,” he said. “Or, I can block a shot and create offense.”
He said having his uncle, Todd Bertuzzi, as a guide is helpful, although carrying a surname noted in hockey has its drawbacks.
“I mean, a little bit,” he said. “But I don’t look at that. I just go play for myself and my teammates. Just being able to grow up and have him behind me and telling me what it’s like to go through it all, it’s a big help.”
His coach both understands and values the transition Bertuzzi made, and that a kid is growing to be a man, too.
“In my eyes, he’s really matured off the ice,” Blashill said.
“He’s real serious about wanting to be a hockey player, and if he continues to be real serious about wanting to be a hockey player, he’ll be a real good one.”
Bruins at Red Wings
Faceoff: 7 tonight, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
Outlook: The Red Wings are coming off a hot performance, albeit against a Penguins roster that included many players destined for the minors. ... The Bruins changed general managers during the offseason, and Thursday saw Zdeno Chara leave the game with an upper body injury.