Cut by his junior team at age 19, signed as an undrafted free agent, and standing 5-foot-9 on a good day, Dan Sexton is the last guy anyone would expect to become the Ducks’ brightest spot in a dismal season.
Just ask Sexton himself.
“Three or four years ago,” he said, “I was in no position to even dream about this.”
Which sort of explains his reaction to each of his goals Tuesday, the first two of his NHL career.
After his first goal, which brought the Ducks within 3-2 at 6:08 of the third period, Sexton vigorously pumped his fist — almost Tiger Woods-like — and smiled as broadly as the sheet of ice he stood on.
After his second goal, a one-timer between the legs of Marty Turco that tied the game at 3 with 1:02 left in regulation, Sexton just stood there.
“I was just like, ‘holy, I can’t believe it,’ ” he said. “I was in shock that I was able to get that second one in. Just to be out there in the last minute and help the team get two extra points, it feels great. After it went in, I was just kind of in shock and I didn’t know what to do. That’s all I can say about that one.”
Which begs the question, what was Sexton doing out there in the first place?
Granted, it’s not like a 22-year-old to make himself so at home, so quickly, at hockey’s highest professional ranks in one season. Sexton started the season in Bakersfield and led the Ducks’ ECHL affiliate in scoring; he was promoted to AHL Manitoba and had a goal and an assist after three games; he was promoted to the NHL last Friday and scored twice in his third game.
Still, it’s not like Randy Carlyle to have a 22-year-old on the ice with a minute left in a one-goal game.
“You can’t put a young player that has provided offense at every level and expect him to be a checker,”Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said.”I think that’s incorrect. And we do it all the time — lots of times you’ll call up players and they’ll end up playing on your fourth line.
“We don’t look at it that way. If he’s a bona fide skilled player at the American Hockey League level, why not play him with your skilled players? Specifically, with a skilled player out of the lineup in (injured right wing Teemu) Selanne, we needed an injection of skill.”
Sexton said it was just a matter of time before he, or linemtes Saku Koivu or Bobby Ryan, scored a goal. The three had been skating together in each game since Sexton was recalled from Manitoba, and developing more chemistry with each shift.
It was Koivu who made Sexton’s first NHL goal possible by intercepting a defensive-zone pass by the Stars’ Loui Eriksson, quickly dishing from the slot to Ryan down low and creating a 2-on-1 with Ryan and Sexton in front of Turco. Turco, a longtime Ducks nemesis, was backing into his own net when Sexton fired a forehand from the bottom of the right faceoff circle.
On the game-tying goal, Sexton seemed to have confidence on his side when he took the puck to the low right circle, and seemed to catch Turco by surprise with his quick wrist shot.
“It’s fun to see when a young kid comes from the minors and gets his opportunity,” Koivu said. “This is the third game that he’s played on my line, and you can tell a big difference from the first game to this one. He seems to be a lot more comfortable with the puck. Obviously right now, tonight, it paid off for him. Hopefully his head does not get too big.”
Sexton seemed to have the proper perspective in the locker room after the win. He recalled the 2006-07 season with the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede when he “thought about giving up”; the coach (Kevin Hartzell) who believed in him that season; and the university (Bowling Green) that ultimately offered him a scholarship.
Yet none of his triumphs, including his NHL debut last Friday in St. Paul, Minnesota — less than a half hour away from his home town of Apple Valley — compared to what he felt Tuesday.
“Take my coolest previous feeling and multiply it by 10, if not more,” he said. “That’s what it was.”
By making his goals count for a Ducks squad that had lost five straight, against a team that had beaten them twice this season, Sexton was able to spread around some of his joy.
“Tonight he scored big two goals,” Carlyle said, “and he probably doesn’t realize how big they are for our hockey club.”