They’re a motley crew of a line that for some reason – unbeknownst to the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors – clicks together on the ice. It wasn’t some grand recipe that plunked Canadian-born Jordan Mayer on a line between Russian sniper Maxim Kitsyn and Finn Mika Partanen, but rather combining a few highly skilled leftovers.
“I’m not sure there was any magic that happened to put them together,” said Majors head coach and GM Dave Cameron of the trio. “It probably fell into place based more on who I had on the other two lines.”
That happy happenstance helped the Majors rally from a two-goal deficit to edge the Niagara IceDogs 3-2 in overtime to take a 2-1 series lead in the Ontario Hockey League’s Eastern Conference final on Saturday night. Kitsyn was the one who put the Majors on the board first, banging the puck past IceDogs goalie Mark Visentin in the second period. Up until that point, Visentin and the IceDogs had looked unbeatable, having turned aside 27 shots in the first 40 minutes of the game.
“It was an important goal because we were trying so hard (to score),” said Kitsyn after the game. “It was like trying to break a wall, when we broke it once it became simpler to break it the next time.”
True enough, the Majors found more holes in Visentin. They tied it up to send the game into overtime, where star forward Justin Shugg put in a rebound off a Casey Cizikas shot at the 3:13 mark of the extra frame. On the bench, Partanen had no doubt about the outcome when he saw Cizikas carrying the puck and Shugg trailing.
“I knew this was our game,” said Partanen. “Shugg is always going to put it in the net.”
The 3M line of Mika, Max and Mayer has become the Majors’ top-producing unit in the post-season, combining for 27 points in 11 playoff games, with Mayer (five goals and six assists) and Kitsyn (six goals and five assists) tying for the team’s scoring lead.
“It’s exciting to play with two wingers like that who have explosive speed,” said Mayer. “Max can make great plays and Mika has an amazing shot and can hit hard. The dynamics of our line just click really well and it’s exciting to play with them.”
Mayer, 19, is an old hand when it comes to dealing with the European mindset. Last season the Kingston, Ont., native played and billeted with Swedish import William Wallen and the two quickly became close friends. He remembers being surprised when, after just arriving in North America, Wallen asked if he wanted to grab a sandwich at the local Subway on the walk home.
“It’s funny how fast they can learn,” said Mayer. “They’re so influenced by swear words, coach talking and everything. There’s English everywhere. Their billets speak English so it’s easier for them to learn.”
When Wallen returned home to Stockholm to play in the Swedish Elite League, his import spot was filled by Partanen and the occasional walks turned into Mayer chauffeuring the native of Porovoo, Finland, to and from the rink every day in his grey Acura. Partanen said they talk about anything and everything on their rides to the rink, and commended Mayer for being a good and “safe” driver.
“Mika’s very fluent (in English), I drive him to the rink everyday so we have that connection and I’ve learned how to talk to him and get that communication going,” said Mayer. “Max (Kitsyn) is a little harder, he’s not as fluent as Mika is, but he’s definitely coming along, you can use simple words, you can’t talk too complicated and you just have to make sure he understands. Talk slowly and he gets the gist of it.”
Kitsyn, who helped Russia win a gold medal by defeating the Cameron-coached Canadian squad at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., made his North American debut on Jan. 7 after he was loaned to the Majors by the KHL’s Metallurg Novokuznetsk, his hometown team. In Mississauga, he lives with English-speaking billets, though the father of the family he lives with also speaks Slovenian, which is similar enough in a pinch to help Kitsyn when conversation becomes too tricky.
“Max is a very upbeat character, he throws himself out there. He’s not shy,” said Mayer. “If he makes a mistake, he’s not worried about it. We bug him sometimes, but he knows we’re just joking. He’s doing really well.”
But like his play on the ice, the sixth-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2010 has adapted quickly.
“He’s got a weird sense of balance, he can get really low in his skating style,” said Mayer. “He’s a big boy, not super thick, but he’s got some size to him and he’s hard to knock off the puck. He protects the puck really well.”
When asked if he thinks Mayer’s speed helps him keep up with the European linemates on his flank, Kitsyn flashes a wry smile.
“He’s fast? Really?” said the Russian shaking his head before laughing. “He’s a good player. I like him.”
Cameron said all three have been successful because they have attributes that complement each other on the ice.
“Each guy on a line brings his own assets, so you just try to have them intermingle,” said Cameron on Saturday. “Jordan’s quick and Max holds the puck, so Jordan’s able to find open ice. The other thing is with Mika, when he’s playing straight-line hockey and finishing checks he’s creating space and loose pucks.”
Too see all three players together, they look like your typical teenagers – Mayer is baby-faced and happy-go-lucky, Partanen is constantly smiling and seems to change the allegiance of his baseball cap each month. And everyone cracks up laughing when Kitsyn, the most serious looking of the three, adds another expletive to his ever-growing vocabulary.
“Jordan is a small guy, he’s so funny. I call him the 13-year-old centreman,” said Kitsyn of the 5-foot-10, 177-pound Mayer.
“Even when times are bad, he’s one of those kids that puts a smile on and keeps things positive,” said Mayer of Partanen.
For some reason, said Mayer, the two Europeans seem to converse easier with each other in English than they do with him.
“For some reason they can understand each other, just the way they speak,” said Mayer. “When they have conversations it kind of goes a little easier for them.
“Maybe I’ll just talk to Mika and tell him to tell Kitsyn,” he added with a laugh.
On the ice, however, there’s only one language and the three friends have no difficulty communicating with the puck, making the line a treat to watch every time Cameron sends them over the boards.
“Hockey language is the International language,” said Kitsyn. “It’s not the same like in Russian, but we all understand.”