KITCHENER — Sitting in the stands before his Plymouth Whalers faced the host Kitchener Rangers the other night, Stefan Noesen was focused intently on his phone. Once the puck dropped however, the first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators was totally immersed in the on-ice action, keeping game stats on a clipboard despite the cast on his left hand.
The injury, which occurred during their first-round series against the Guelph Storm, was a bad break for the Whalers in more ways than one.
“It was friendly fire,” said Noesen, with a smile. “I got hit with a shot from (teammate) Austin Levi. It’s all right though, I’ll be back soon.”
After dropping a 5-1 decision to the host Rangers on Wednesday night, Noesen’s return can’t come soon enough for the Whalers. Despite missing all four games of their second-round series against Kitchener, Noesen still leads the team in scoring with seven goals and seven assists in six games.
“He’s our leading scorer and he’s the catalyst of our team this year,” said Plymouth head coach and general manager Mike Vellucci. “He’s been awesome and we miss him a lot, but our other guys have got to fill in.”
There’s no timetable for Noesen’s return, but Vellucci said the 6-foot-1, 193-pound winger is scheduled to visit the doctor again on Friday.
“They’ll tell me Friday if he can play or not,” said Vellucci. “I hope so.”
In the meantime, the 19-year-old has been forced into the role of unwilling spectator while his teammates battle in the best-of-seven series currently tied at two games apiece. Noesen admits it’s been incredibly frustrating, knowing there’s nothing he can do to help on the ice.
“There are no words to describe how difficult it is to watch,” said Noesen from his seat in the stands. “Seeing one of our guys in a position you would normally be in, it’s like, ‘Do this! Do this! Do this!’ You want to get a remote control out and move them around. It’s really difficult.”
In Noesen’s absence a number of teammates have stepped up, notably 18-year-old forward Tom Wilson, who was 15th among North American skaters in the NHL’s Central Scouting Service’s final draft rankings. In the post-season, Wilson has almost half as many goals in the playoffs (four) as he did in his 49-game regular season, in which he scored nine goals and 18 assists.
“He had some bad breaks with some injuries early on,” said Vellucci of Wilson. “He hit a lot of crossbars and guys like that going into their draft year, if they don’t get a goal early they start to panic a little bit. But he had a great year.”
Noesen, who was taken 21st overall by the Senators in the 2011 NHL draft, appreciates the way the Whalers have been able to carry on not only in his absence, but also without the services of forward Garrett Meurs (shoulder) and defenceman Beau Schmitz (knee), though Schmitz returned to the lineup for the Kitchener series.
“We’re playing a team game right now and doing all the little things we were doing in the Guelph series even when I was in the lineup,” said Noesen. “The guys are picking up the extra slack that if I was playing I would have been able to pull.”
For Vellucci, injuries at such a critical time of year seem to be par for the course in terms of the kind of adversity the Whalers have had to deal with all season.
“We’ve had injuries all year long, but it seems like they’re multiplying right now during the playoffs,” said the longtime coach. “We can’t use that as an excuse. Everyone has had injuries.
“If you’re good enough you’ll survive.”
The Whalers – seeded second in the Western Conference -- proved good enough in the first round, rallying to win four straight games after falling down 2-0 in their series against Guelph.
“We came into the playoffs knowing what winning feels like,” said Noesen. “We beat these guys (Kitchener) here in seven games (in the first round of the 2011 playoffs), so we knew what if felt like to win. And I think we wanted that feeling so bad that we just thought it would come easy because we were the second-ranked team playing against a seventh-ranked team that we thought – at the time – didn’t belong there. Some guys took them for granted and that rubbed off on everybody, and we went down.”
Vellucci took his team to task, calling them out publicly as “old and cocky.” In hindsight, the humbling by both Guelph and their coach might have been exactly what the Whalers needed to get back on track.
“It was crucial being down 2-0 when we believed we shouldn’t have been down. It was something that we really took to heart,” said Noesen. “In this series, we’ve played well. It’s all been one or two goal games … just for us to be able to pull ourselves together; it really was a wake-up call for us.”
As one of the veterans on the team, he’s had to make the transition to doing most of his talking off the ice now that he’s been injured. He says, however, that the 2011-12 edition of the Whalers is one of the most easy-going and tight-knit teams he’s ever played with.
“This is by far the most family-oriented team,” said Noesen. “It’s nice just being able to have that family communication and have those guys in the locker room you can go to. There are no little groups. Everyone can hang out with anyone. Last year we were still pretty tight, but we still had cliques here and there.”
He notes that his teammates still give him the gears about being from Plano, Texas – not exactly a hotbed of hockey action. His mom, Jamie, is a native Texan, though his dad, Glen, hails from Chicago and grew up a devout Blackhawks fan. Surprisingly, there’s no hint of Texas twang or even slight southern drawl that would give you a clue to Noesen’s hometown.
“When I first came here (to Plymouth) they were like, ‘Where’s your accent?’” said Noesen of his teammates. “I don’t have an accent. I think I’ve been around too many Canadians in my life to get an accent. My mom has a strong one. Her whole side of the family has a strong accent. She was born in – I guess you could call it the armpit of Texas – in the (Texas) Panhandle. It’s all desert and dirt devils in Lubbock.”