Erik Christensen doesn’t get rattled by much. The 21-year-old center has more than held his own against opponents older and bigger than his 6-foot-1, 195 pound frame during his first trip through the AHL.
It’s once he gets off the ice that a little bit of fear creeps in.
“Living on my own and paying bills, real-life stuff,” he said, “at first it’s scary.”
An Edmonton native, Christensen joined the Penguins after a five-year stint in the Western Hockey League, where host families take in junior players and treat them as their own children. And while he has a small army of supporters from the Penguins’ booster club and roommate Drew Fata helping him out in Wilkes-Barre, the adjustments from the comfort of family living to living on one’s own aren’t always easy.
“I’m no Iron Chef or anything like that,” laughed Christensen. “I’ve got a good cook as a roommate though. But stuff like that was scary.
“It’s different than junior, because of the life – being on your own and being further away from home now. But I’m having a blast.”
And he’s doing a little blasting of his own. Heading into the final week of the regular season, Christensen is eighth on the Penguins with 14 goals and was 11th with 27 points. He had been especially strong during the one-month period from Feb. 19 to March 20, as Christensen recorded three goals and 10 points during that 11-game span.
“My first 10 games or 15 games were a lot of learning, I wasn’t playing a lot,” said Christensen, who had just one point in his first 17 contests with the team. “It has everything to do with [head coach Michel] Therrien. He’s been helping me out in my own end and teaching me how to play the pro game. It’s a different game than junior.
“I’m a skilled type of player, but I still can’t go and try to beat guys one-on-one. That’s not what’s going to happen at the next level. So he’s really taught me, and he’s still teaching me, how to play the pro game. I think I’ve grown accustomed to that a little bit, and it’s helped me out with putting points up here.”
Not that points are anything new to Christensen; he totaled 286 of them (133+153) with Kamloops and Brandon during his junior career. His best WHL season came in 2002-03, when he led the circuit with 54 goals and 108 points.
And even though he’s not scoring anywhere near that clip with the Penguins, he’s more than happy with his play thus far.
“I have more points now than I did my first year of junior. I had 14 my first year of junior, so I’ve got to think that’s positive,” he said, comparing his first year totals in the two leagues. “But everyone’s just bigger, stronger, faster. It’s just like when I went from bantam to junior at 15. Every guy was bigger than me and stronger and faster. You catch up with age. Once I’m 22 or 24, hopefully I’ll be just like everybody else.”
You’d have a hard time telling Christensen wasn’t already like everybody else. Even though he’s one of the low men on the totem pole, the quiet kid known as ‘Crush’ has been embraced by his veteran teammates.
“I walk in the locker room, and I know I’m a rookie, but I don’t feel like it,” he said. “I don’t get treated like one, and no one sort of singles you out and is rough on you. Everyone feels really welcome and comfortable here.
“The way it’s turned out, I couldn’t have asked for more as teammates from the guys in this dressing room.”
He’s doing his best to show his appreciation to his fellow Penguins on the ice as well. During a 6-2 loss to the Binghamton Senators on March 12, Christensen dropped the gloves with Binghamton’s Jesse Fibiger after seeing the Sens’ defender taking a few liberties with his teammates.
“Eavesy [Ben Eaves] was hit twice hard there. I was getting nailed pretty hard,” he said. “I don’t usually do that, I never get like that. I’m not like [Pens’ tough guy] Mike [Sgroi] where I can just turn it on and snap. But I just snapped; I was mad.
“A guy like Loopy [Ross Lupaschuk] has stuck up for me twice, once when I was hit hard against Philadelphia, and once was on [March 11] against Norfolk, when one of their tough guys went after me. I didn’t want to be one of those guys where everyone sticks up for me, but I’m not willing to stick up for anyone else. To be a team player and to earn respect around the locker room and with a lot of the older players…I thought it was good for me to get that and show guys I have another side of me that can come out. It was certainly a different experience, because I don’t really do it that often. But it felt good afterwards.”
Christensen scored the winning goal for the Penguins on April 10, capping a 3-2 victory in Hershey that allowed Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to clinch a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row. He is bound to be a key ingredient as the Pens attempt to defend their Eastern Conference championship this spring.