It just keeps getting better and better for Hunter Shinkaruk.
The 17-year-old Calgarian found himself smack dab in the middle of a star-studded roster of players Thursday as the Canada-Russia Challenge opened and the ever-growing five-foot-10, 160-pound for-ward didn’t look out of place at all.
Centring a line of fifth over-all National Hockey League draft pick Ryan Strome and feisty Lucas Lessio, a couple of 19-year-olds, Shinkaruk and his mates were often tasked with keeping the No. 1 Russian line, which featured Edmonton Oilers’ No. 1 draft pick Nail Yakupov, in check.
Outside of a late goal by Yak-upov during a two-man advantage, they did just that to help Canada post a 3-2 decision in the four-game series. Game 2 will be played this morning before the two teams shift to Halifax for the final two games Monday and Tuesday.
Shinkaruk is just starting to build his international resume, getting it off to a roaring start last April when he sniped three goals, including the winner in overtime, to lift Canada over Finland in the Ivan Hlinka Under-18 tournament’s bronze medal game.
This, however, is another giant step up for the high-scoring forward with the Medicine Hat Tigers.
“You’re out there with a lot of top players who will be in the NHL next season so it’s some pretty high-paced com-petition,” he said. “You look across and see Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, guys you watched get drafted this year, and it’s pretty amazing to be on this ice surface.
“But you kind of have to snap out of the star-struck and start playing your game. To play against them is pretty incredible but when you’re on the ice, you don’t care who you’re playing – you’re trying to be the best player on the ice, create the most amount of offence and stay strong in the D zone.”
Shinkaruk’s game is non-stop hustle. He’s a puck hound and when he gets a quality scoring chance, he’ll bury the puck more often than not. The 49-goal campaign in just his second season with the Tigers will attest to that.
“It’s been a great season,” he conceded. “Obviously in Medicine Hat things went re-ally well and going to the U18 was fun with the way it finished off, getting the hat trick and the OT winner was pretty incredible. But to be here playing in the Challenge is some-thing I’ve dreamed about and to have this opportunity at 17 is pretty crazy.”
Canada came out hard on the body against the Russians, battled through a tight-checking scoreless first period and then jumped into a 2-0 lead early in the second on a power-play goal by Sean Monahan and point shot from Scott Harrington. Anton Slepyshev narrowed the gap to 2-1 before defenceman Doug Hamilton scored what proved to be the winner on a late power-play to end the period.
“We played hard and it looked like we were going to get some more (goals) but a couple costly turnovers, some penalties and they battled back,” said Shinkaruk. “It’s pretty amazing to play with guys like Stromer and Lessio and, at 17, it’s pretty amazing they think high enough of me to put me in the top six.
“I’m just going to try to play my game, produce some points and hopefully stay on that line.”
Shinkaruk won’t turn 18 until October. Billed by some scouts as perhaps the second coming of Chicago’s Patrick Kane, he hopes to have his name called early in the 2013 NHL draft.
“Going into my draft year I hit the gym a lot harder than I have,” he said. “I got a lot stronger while working on my skill level. I feel really good out here. I feel like I can play at this level very comfortably.”