Keith Aucoin walked out of the visiting locker room at TD Garden in Boston to 40 friends and family members cheering and screaming for him. There's not much more a Massachusetts kid could ask for than scoring two goals against the hometown Bruins with so many people watching.
"It was crazy," Aucoin said. "Probably one of the highlights of my NHL career."
Aucoin hasn't gotten much of a chance to put together a lengthy NHL career full of those kinds of highlights. Considered for so long a career minor leaguer, the forward has 850 games worth of experience in the American Hockey League, Central Hockey League, United Hockey League and ECHL. A cup of coffee here and there in the show added up to a total of 122 NHL games before the age of 34.
He got chances with the Washington Capitals, including last season, but now Aucoin isn't just a call-up. Claimed off waivers by the New York Islanders, he has three goals and an assist in six games this year and is starting to show the kind of offense he can provide at the NHL level if given the chance.
"He definitely deserves it," said Caps goalie Braden Holtby, Aucoin's former teammate in Washington and at AHL Hershey. "The whole time we were playing in Hershey we could never figure out why he wasn't up top [in the NHL] while we had him there."
The Caps could surely use someone with Aucoin's offensive prowess as they try to find ways to score in the infancy of the Adam Oates era. It has only been six games, but through Tuesday they were 23rd in the league in goals per game with 2.17, and captain Alex Ovechkin had two fewer goals than Aucoin.
Meanwhile, fellow ex-Caps who left last summer are filling roles around the league: Alexander Semin with the Carolina Hurricanes, Jeff Halpern with the New York Rangers and Mike Knuble with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Knuble and Halpern were told by general manager George McPhee prior to the start of free agency that they wouldn't be brought back, and Aucoin pursued a one-way NHL contract.
"When I didn't get that, then I wanted to come back to Washington," Aucoin said. "But they signed a lot of guys between July 1 and when I went back and talked to them. I knew the chance of getting a good shot of making the team or even getting called up was going to be tough, so I figured the best way for me to play in the NHL was to go somewhere else."
While the Caps filled some secondary scoring gaps with the likes of Joey Crabb and Wojtek Wolski, Aucoin signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs. There, too, he had an uphill battle to make the team despite being more than a point-a-game player for their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, during the lockout.
Aucoin was placed on waivers and figured he'd clear and go on the next Marlies road trip. He had never been traded or claimed off waivers before, so getting the news he was going to the Islanders came as a shock.
"As soon as I got the call I called my wife, and she had just dropped me off at the rink, and she was confused because she's never went through anything like that, too," Aucoin said. "But we both realized that it was a good opportunity, I was going to be in the NHL. The moving part kind of stinks, but at the same time it's all worth it in the end because you know you're going to be in New York and be in the NHL."
Aside from living in a Long Island hotel away from his wife, Maureen, and their 11-month-old son, Brayden, Aucoin has enjoyed a charmed existence since being plucked off the waiver wire. General manager Garth Snow and coach Jack Capuano told the 5-foot-8, 171-pound playmaker he would get a chance to contribute on one of the top three lines and see some power-play time.
Centering a line with David Ullstrom and Colin McDonald was perfect for Aucoin, who has as many goals through six games with the Islanders as he did in 27 games with the Caps last season. For a guy with 814 career points in the AHL, it's a scoring touch he hadn't possessed in any previous NHL stint.
"I think it's the opportunity, and I'm looking for my offense more," Aucoin said. "I think when I get called up, I sit back too much and worry about playing good defense and worry about getting scored on. I think here, I'm still focusing on defense, but when I'm in the offensive zone I'm not worried about being the third guy high or sitting back. I'm more playing my game when I get the puck in the corners and setting my linemates up."
After a career of life in the minors, Aucoin doesn't play with the fear that if he doesn't score or produce he'll get sent back down. Get a few assists here and there and contribute, and he has a good chance of avoiding a trip to Bridgeport to play for the Sound Tigers.
But keeping an NHL job for parts of a season has never been the issue; in addition to the Caps, he played games here and there for the Hurricanes.
Aucoin is trying to show why he belongs for good.
"I think everybody pretty well knows who he is as a player," said Knuble. "Sometimes you just need a break, you need a chance. He's a guy with experience. If you've scored a lot of goals and put a lot of pucks in the net, teams can use guys like that on the power play and always use smart players and guys who are good passers like he is. There'll be a spot for him somewhere."
Even with the confidence gained from last season with the Caps, when he played in all 14 playoff games, Aucoin couldn't find a team willing to give him that spot as a full-time NHL player. Maybe with a chance to provide more offense, he can do just that.
"I think I just got to continue doing what I'm doing: be responsible in the defensive zone and play my game," Aucoin said. "I can't sit back, I've got to keep playing, doing what I'm doing and that's setting my linemates up and playing with confidence. When you're playing more minutes the way I am now, I'm playing with a lot of confidence."
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