Idaho Steelheads rookie forward Mathieu Tousignant had his eyes on the prize when he took the first shift in Game 2 of his team's National Conference semifinal series against Utah on April 17.
He would have been better off having them in the back of his head instead. Tousignant, understandably excited, was pressing to score an early goal.
He should have known better. As one of the best agitators in the ECHL, Tousignant doesn't go anywhere without a target on his back. Utah's Brian Kilburg drilled him from behind, hurting Tousignant's ribs and temporarily sending him off the ice.
"People take my name, they have my name and number in their head," Tousignant said. "When they do stuff like that, I have to have a response back."
Eye-for-an-eye trades usually are Tousignant's calling cards, but the problem this time was that even though he returned, he might as well have sat out the rest of the game. He virtually was invisible in his team's win, and afterward Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal called him into his office for a teachable moment.
It's fine to run around and play on the edge all the time, the coach said, but when an opponent comes out with a first strike of his own, you can't let that dull your game for the rest of the night.
"Things don't go your way all the time when you're an agitator. That (hit) really shook him up a little bit," Laxdal said. "Teams that play physical are going to target you a little bit. He understands what happened. He knows what he has to do the next time."
Tousignant, 20, has gone from unknown to Dallas Stars prospect by making his presence felt this season, and the playoffs are no exception. While still searching to find his ECHL groove after a long stretch with Texas of the AHL, he rebounded to play a little better and help Idaho win the next two games and sweep Utah out of the postseason.
"He's trying to play hard. He's trying to contribute and not hurt the team when he was on the ice," Laxdal said. "Once he finds his confidence, he'll be fine."
The Steelheads were a happy bunch heading into the postseason, and that went beyond their status as the conference's No. 1 seed. Right before the playoffs started they got Tousignant back from Texas, where he had spent the past 45 games.
"Our guys love him in the room. He's a young kid with a lot of energy," Laxdal said. "He's one of those guys who makes everyone work hard. He's real bubbly. Personality-wise, he rubs off."
To infuriated opponents, Tousignant spreads with the joy of poison ivy. In warm-ups, he's been known to sidle up to the opposing pest and tell him that if the foe is looking for trouble then the search ends here. Tousignant, whose native tongue is French, still is learning English, but he knows enough of the right words in that language to incite trouble and put his health at risk.
"My body is sore a lot," he said. "I see the trainer after the game. (If) I'm not hurt, I didn't do my job."
As a 15-year-old making his debut for Baie-Comeau of the QMJHL, Tousignant thought elbowing Quebec Ramparts star Alexander Radulov would be a good way to introduce himself. Radulov would have preferred a simple hello, and went crazy trying to get a piece of Tousignant. The line of opposing stars seeking a similar revenge on Tousignant since then could wrap around the outside of a hockey arena.
"I had some skill, but I had to do other things to get people to look at me," Tousignant said. "In professional hockey, a lot of players are good. If I want to play in the NHL someday, I have to do some things other players really can't."
The 5-foot-11, 189-pound Tousignant backs up his sideshow antics with substance. He had 6 goals and 17 points in his first 20 games with Idaho before his recall to Texas. He had just 4 goals and 7 points in 45 games with the Stars, but showed he could translate his role to the AHL.
In one game against Houston, for instance, the Stars trailed 2-1 in the second when Tousignant drew an attempt-to-injure penalty on the Aeros' Carson McMillan. Tousignant got a broken nose and seven stitches out of the deal, but Texas got a power-play goal and eventually won in overtime.
"They call me a troublemaker," Tousignant said of his Texas teammates. "I don't think I made a lot of friends on other teams this year."
"My body is sore a lot. I see the trainer after the game. (If) I'm not hurt, I didn't do my job." -- Mathieu Tousignant
"At first I was like, that's unbelievable," Tousignant said. "I didn't expect that at all."
When Texas got some players back from Dallas for its postseason, the organization gave Tousignant a chance to enjoy the playoffs with the Steelheads and perhaps put on one final run of performances in Idaho.
"I got a couple texts (from Idaho teammates), I'm happy you got sent down," Tousignant said. "It's always good when people greet you that way, they greet you with arms wide open. My head is all in Boise. I wasn't supposed to be in Austin all year. When they said I'm getting sent down before playoffs, I said, 'OK.' We have a pretty good team. If you win as a professional, you get a good name."
Tousignant's name carries a different tone when muttered by anyone wearing an opposing sweater this postseason. The Utah experience taught him the importance of playing on high alert from start to finish; anyone now attempting some payback early or late will do so while on Tousignant's full radar.
"I learned from that situation," he said. "The first shift or the last shift in the game, you have to be ready. I'm going to be ready all the time now."