Rookie assists 67's cause

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

67's star defenceman Tyler Cuma has targeted Feb. 6 for his return from a knee injury.

Yesterday, rookie defenceman Brian Birkhoff took his turn doing a commendable job in Cuma's absence.

Birkhoff, an 11th-round pick in 2007 (206th overall), assisted on all the 67's goals in their 4-2 win over the Erie Otters yesterday at the Civic Centre in front of a crowd of 7,792. That's a good day's work for anybody, but especially for a 17-year-old who entered play yesterday with just six assists in 32 games.

Birkhoff helped out on goals by Thomas Kiriakou (his 19th), Cody Lindsay (15th), Thomas Nesbitt (15th) and Ryan Martindale (20th) as the 67's won their second game in a row and pushed their record to 28-16-2-2, good for third place in the OHL's Eastern Conference. The Otters are now 23-23-2-0 and seventh in the West.

Cuma, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in last summer's NHL draft, hurt his knee trying out for junior Team Canada in December, but the 67's, riding a balanced offensive attack and strong contributions from young players like Birkhoff, have now won 13 of 17 games since Dec. 12.

"In that little run we got going, we had some nice bounces," said Birkhoff. "It's amazing how they help out the score."

The 67's got a couple of those bounces yesterday. After Erie's Luke Gazdic opened the scoring on a deflection in front of 67's goaltender Chris Perugini less than a minute into the game, a crazy bounce off the end boards 18 seconds later allowed the 67's to tie it.

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The puck bounced off the boards, went by Erie goaltender Jaroslav Janus -- the Slovakian crowd favourite at the world junior championship -- then off the side of the net and out to Kiriakou.

The 67's got another bounce to take the lead in the second when Lindsay tried to centre the puck on a wraparound. The puck hit a stick, bounced off the crossbar and then off Janus at 6:42 of the second.

Birkhoff did a great job of working the puck up the boards to Nesbitt for his goal to make it 3-1 with less than three minutes to play in the second and Martindale's wrister at 4:58 of the third gave the 67's a three-goal cushion. Erie's Mike Cazzola kept digging in a scramble for his eighth at 9:11 to keep it interesting.

Birkhoff, a Richmond Hill native, said he's grateful for the opportunity given him by 67's coach and GM Brian Kilrea and assistant Bert O'Brien in the absence of Cuma and fellow rookie Ryan Hanes (out with a broken ankle), adding the presence of longtime friend Sean Jones on the Otters gave him a little extra incentive yesterday.

"Bert and Killer have been putting a lot of trust in me, and I'm feeling so comfortable out there. I've got confidence in myself to shoot and pass the puck. I owe so much gratitude to Killer and Bert," said Birkhoff.

"He thinks he's Bobby Orr now," Kilrea said with a chuckle. "He moved the puck, but it's his defensive game I like. He's a big, strong kid and he's one fella who gets in the road."

The 67's are in Kingston Wednesday to face the Frontenacs and host the Belleville Bulls, first in the East, Friday.


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