TORONTO - Riley Brace might have started the season best known as the man with the moustache but times have changed in a big way.
Rest assured, Brace is still rockin' the '70s porn star lip cover -- he trimmed back the gnarly-looking handlebar he was sporting early on -- but the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors forward can now be looked at simply as The Man.
Ending the week sixth in Ontario Hockey League scoring with 25 goals and 34 assists, both career highs, Brace has taken his game, if not his facial hair, to a new level as the season has progressed. Considering the 19-year-old from Woodlawn, Ont., surpassed his previous career best point total about, oh, two months ago, even he's been pleasantly surprised how much he's grown (pardon the pun) in his fourth OHL season.
"I wanted it but I didn't expect it to turn out as good as it has," Brace admitted. "I can honestly say I wanted to have a huge impact. Boydie (coach/general manager James Boyd) is giving me an opportunity to play. That's a huge difference from the previous couple of years."
While Brace is quick to credit his new-found offensive success to his increase in ice time and the fact he's playing in all situations (plus the off-season work with trainer Scott Heffernan), not just trying to prevent goals in his previous role as a defensive forward, he's found a way to become a consistent offensive threat on a team that sometimes struggles to score. In 46 games, the Majors have managed just 137 goals, the fourth-lowest total in the league, and Brace has been involved in 43% of them.
With the Majors getting younger at the trade deadline -- Boyd traded away three veteran forwards, as well as stud goalie J.P. Anderson, in an effort to kickstart the rebuilding process -- Brace is going to be leaned on even more heavily down the stretch. Being the Majors' go-to guy, finally, is something he seems to relish.
"The previous years I've been a secondary guy, I haven't been asked to score," he said. "I don't know (what's changed). In the past I've gotten off to pretty slow starts. I had a good start and it definitely helped a lot.
"It is real nice where guys look up and say, 'There's our guy.' As much as Boydie hasn't said we need me to score, I need to contribute. I need to be contributing offensively for our team to win."
Brace's increased productivity would have made him a valuable commodity on the trade market at the deadline.
Teams inquired about him -- there were rumblings he'd be moved -- but Boyd never pulled the trigger. The Majors need him if they hope to squeak into the playoffs and he'll make a solid overager if he doesn't sign with an NHL team in the off-season.
But Brace wasn't sure if he'd be wearing Majors blue as the clock ticked down to the deadline.
"I'm going to be honest, I was a little shakey on it," he said, adding that he expressed to Boyd his interest in staying. "I didn't know what his plans were. I was happy in Mississauga, I'm comfortable here. I didn't want to move. I was definitely scared the previous couple of days (before the deadline)."
A deal never materialized and the 'stache stayed put.
CARRICK CARRYING BATTALION
Want a reason why the Brampton Battalion are still in the hunt for the Eastern Conference title?
Try Maple Leafs prospect Sam Carrick. He's put the Battalion on his back and carried them, just as a captain should.
In the last two months, the Battalion has racked up 15 goals and 11 assists to set new career highs in goals and points, while jumping to 31st in OHL scoring. Being just outside the top 30 might not seem like a big deal but for Carrick, a fourth-year forward who has always contributed more on the grit and character side of the ledger, it has him near a point-per-game pace.
And keep in mind that Brampton plays it close to the vest offensively because of the lack of veterans with high-end skill. So Carrick is not going to get the same number of chances he might in, say, Ottawa or Niagara, two teams overloaded with talent up front.
It's safe to say Brian Burke has to like what he sees from Carrick these days.
Not sure I completely agree with the 12-game suspension the league gave Sudbury Wolves forward Brody Silk for his cheap shot on Niagara IceDogs star Ryan Strome.
Listen, I have backed the OHL all season for handing out double-digit bans for shots to the head -- the flying elbows really need to go -- but this one falls into a completely different category. Was Silk suspended simply because Strome was hurt (a smashed nose and facial fractures), injuries that could as easily have come in a legit fight?
Sure, some would call it a sucker punch by Silk but, let's face it, Strome was an active participant -- shoving, face-washing and chirping -- up until he was dropped with a quick right hand. Had Strome dropped his gloves and started throwing punches before getting clocked, would Silk's punishment been as severe? Highly unlikely.