For Brett Pesce of the Carolina Hurricanes, the game Sunday against Tampa Bay offered both the highs and lows of a rookie defenseman in the NHL.
In the first period, Pesce swiftly skated the puck out of the Carolina zone. He first moved past the Lightning’s Valtteri Filppula, then faked out Braydon Coburn near the offensive blue line and later had a shot on goal.
The second period was more of a struggle. Pesce was beaten for the puck behind the Carolina net, then got his first NHL penalty when he was called for high-sticking Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson. Later, used on the Canes’ penalty kill with defenseman Noah Hanifin in the box, he failed to clear the puck on a play and the Lightning scored as Steven Stamkos ripped a shot.
“I’m going to make mistakes,” Pesce said Wednesday. “It’s only five games in and I’m not glad I made them, but you just have to learn from your mistakes and hopefully they won’t happen again. You can’t let it bring down your confidence. You’ve got to play your game.”
Canes coach Bill Peters said it’s something being discussed in video sessions this week – for Pesce and Hanifin.
“They’ve both played well (but) they mirror our team,” Peters said. “When we play well they play well. It’s not like they’re going to lead us to the promised land when our team is struggling, pull us through. You don’t expect young guys to do that.
“It’s just experience. Everything is the first time, right? It’s the first time they’ve seen it, first time they’ve played on the road, first time against Tampa, first NHL point. Everything is first, first, first. You’re not drawing or relying on experience.”
Hanifin, 18, was the Canes’ first-round draft pick this year and the fifth overall selection. Pesce, a third-round pick by Carolina in 2013, played three years of college hockey at New Hampshire before signing his entry-level contract this year. He turns 21 on Nov. 15.
“It would have been nice to have him back one more year but we’re happy he’s playing for Carolina,” New Hampshire coach Dick Umile said this week.
At UNH, Umile said Pesce was paired at times with Trevor Van Riemsdyk, now in his second year with the Chicago Blackhawks, to give the Wildcats a formidable blue-line tandem.
“Brett was a young kid but could play at a high level,” Umile said. “He has a lot of poise, does not lose too many one-on-one battles and can create offense. He understands the game and always played with confidence. He came to us at 18 and played against 22- and 23-year-olds. I think that helped him get ready for the next step.”
Pesce, one of the Canes’ last roster cuts in training camp, began the season with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. But he was recalled after defenseman James Wisniewski suffered a knee injury in Carolina’s season-opener. Pesce, who made his NHL debut Oct. 24 at San Jose, was paired with veteran John-Michael Liles.
“He’s moved the puck, had the puck a lot, been good defensively,” coach Peters said.
Pesce and forward Brock McGinn both were called up from Charlotte the same day, and Peters said both have “seized the opportunity.”
“That’s what you want,” Peters said. “You want guys to be able to contribute instead of just coming up and wear a sweater. Those guys have done more than just thrown the jersey on.”
The 2013 NHL Draft was at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., not far from Pesce’s hometown of Tarrytown, N.Y. He still laughs about his mother, Alyssa, letting out a scream when his name was announced, saying, “I think the whole building heard her.”
The Pesces recently gathered in Brooklyn to see Brett and the Canes win against the New York Islanders. That was another thrill.
Pesce was 6 feet 3 and about 170 pounds as a college freshman, but has added 30 pounds. He spent last summer working with Ben Prentiss, the trainer used by the Canes’ Nathan Gerbe, and Eric and Jordan Staal, noting, “I’m as strong as I’ve ever been.”
In his five games, Pesce has picked up his first NHL point – an assist against Colorado – and his first penalty, and has played more than 20 minutes in each of the past three games. Like McGinn, he’d like to stick with the big team.
“I have a little mean streak but I’ve always felt staying calm during games is part of my identity,” Pesce said. “I always try to stay poised with the puck and keep it simple. Just play my game.”