by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Lots of adjectives, both printable and otherwise, have been used to describe the way Syracuse Crunch rookie pot-stirrer Derek Dorsett plays the game.
Last week, Dorsett recounted with pride how a teammate said he was looking particularly "owly."
Yeah, he said, like an owl. Focused. Fierce. Sour.
"During playoffs, I’m always on edge. A few guys make comments," the forward noted. "I get focused in on what’s on track. That’s to win."
That’s why opponents this time of year need the one trait that Dorsett’s new namesake possesses — the ability to keep their head on a swivel.
Playoff wins are usually a matter of getting your hands dirty, and Dorsett’s are smeared and mucked up almost beyond recognition. The middleweight agitator is a key piece of the team’s steam-rollering checking line, a lockdown unit that has had its way in causing mayhem, pain and scoring chances in the Crunch’s first two series.
Some young grinders worry about toning it down just a touch for the more conservative, disciplined postseason. Dorsett has taken a green light from captain Zenon Konopka and revved it up even more.
"He’s a playoff player. He does so many things so well," marveled Konopka, the team’s lead watchdog. "In the playoffs (guys like Dorsett) are so valuable. We need (him) to push the line, and to jump over the line."
Lines? Dorsett, a 5-foot-11, 178-pound, highly-wound cable of wire, has no use for boundaries. Take pain, for instance.
He started the season in Columbus’ camp battling through the small annoyance of a painful fractured leg. He would have shrugged that off if potential surgery and a long-term chunk of down time didn’t loom. So he grudgingly sat out the first few weeks of the Crunch’s season.
"I probably could have kept going," he said. "A fractured leg isn’t the end of the world. But it was one of those things that could have acting up."
Once back, he rushed to make up for lost time. He was borderline reckless with his body during the regular season, and the physically punishing give-and-take has hit the red alert level in the playoffs.
"Yeah, I always have something that’s banged up. That’s the nature of my role. That’s the way I play," he said. "That’s been a big eye-opener for me this year, taking care of my body the best I can."
Dorsett, 21, has an odd way of approaching that goal.
He rolled into Syracuse this season off the plains of Kindersley, Sask., chirping up a storm and more than happy to walk the walk. He carried a winning junior hockey pedigree from Medicine Hat and a proud chip from his status as a mere seventh-rounder in the 2006 draft.
He chipped in a little offensively (18 points in 64 games) and gave the Crunch a large part of its swagger (289 PIM). At his feistiest moments, Dorsett has evoked down-the-road comparisons as a Sean Avery type of pest.
"At the start of the year, it was weird. You look across and see some guy who played in the NHL, you say, should I be chirping them? But I have to do it to stay in the lineup," Dorsett said. "I think at the start, it is (hard). No (legendary enforcer) Dennis Bonvie, older guys who have been around, want to see young guys running around beaking off to them. When I’m their age, if I’m still playing, I’m not going to like it. But the game has changed. That’s all I can say."
If that’s all that Dorsett was noticed for, he would be little more than a sideshow in a sport that now demands more from its sandpaper types. But his solid performance as an AHL playoff rookie is answering questions about whether his temperament and aggressiveness could be channeled toward a more disciplined postseason effort.
Syracuse’s third line has been dominant in its first two series, not only rolling over opposing skill players but controlling the puck on the cycle and creating a slew of scoring chances.
Dorsett’s signature moment came in the clinching Game 6 vs. Manitoba in a first-round series, when his forecheck on the Moose’s Shaun Heshka forced a turnover that Syracuse’s Trevor Frischmon turned into the winning goal.
"You have to find that intensity every night. The game picks up more," Dorsett said. "Every battle means more. Any mistake you make can change the series. (In) sports, if there is no pressure, it’s not going to be competitive. You can use pressure in a good way."
Career-long habits don’t have to bow out when the playoffs start. Newcomer or not, Dorsett took it upon himself to speak up for veteran teammate Duvie Westcott when Toronto’s Kyle Rogers nailed him with a hard, but clean, hit in Game 1 of their North Division final series. Dorsett went after Rogers, earning more admiration and a tap on the legs from Westcott.
"I know my role on this team," Dorsett said. "Duvie is one of our top defenseman. I didn’t really see what happened. I just saw Duvie get hit hard. When a guy of that status gets hit, you have to take it in your hands."
Whatever response is called for, Dorsett is showing that he can raise his game and physical play to deliver it.
"I’ve always had good experiences in the playoffs. It’s the type of game I play," Dorsett said. "It’s the time of year you always want to be playing in. The best high in life is winning. That’s the most fun thing about hockey. You push yourself to be the best player you can. When it comes out is the playoffs."
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.