WASHINGTON — Eric Belanger didn't really know what to expect a month ago. He didn't know what to hope for, only to survive training camp for a change and maybe even get an NHL job.
Tonight, he centers the Kings' first line in their season-opening game against the Washington Capitals.
"I surprised myself," said Belanger, a 22-year-old whose next NHL shift will be his first.
"I only knew that I hadn't been in last year's training camp, so I came to this training camp hoping to show some new people what I could do. And I think I did."
"I know everybody has talked about [center] Steve [Reinprecht's] training camp, and it has been great," said Luc Robitaille, who will be on Belanger's left wing tonight. "But Eric has been great too."
Said Ziggy Palffy, who will be on Belanger's other wing: "He's a good skater, a nice player. His game is good."
But Palffy adds what everybody else is adding: "He can help us a lot, but he has to do it in the games. Games are different from training camp."
Palffy is the most likely player to miss Jozef Stumpel, a Slovakian teammate since they were tots and--with Robitaille--a line partner last season. Palffy and Belanger have skated together in one exhibition, against the San Jose Sharks at Bakersfield, and Belanger fed Palffy for a goal.
Then Palffy suffered a broken fingertip that sidelined him the rest of camp and sent him to injured reserve. He is expected to be activated for tonight's game.
The specter of Stumpel, who is a holdout after a 17-goal, 41-assist season and who is a nine-year NHL veteran, has loomed over Belanger since he came to the line with Palffy two weeks ago.
Robitaille joined them Saturday in the final exhibition, at Las Vegas.
"It's been hard," Belanger said, "but you have to put yourself in a bubble. You're on a mission to get a job, and you want to do so well that when Jozef comes back, the coaches have a hard decision. I have no control over his coming back. I only have control over what I do on the ice."
So he comes into the game with pressure from all sides.
On the one hand, he is trying to replace the Kings' No. 1 center.
On the other, the line has 748 goals, broken down this way:
"I like pressure," he said. "Athletes like pressure. Look, I'm not trying to replace Stumpel. I'm trying to do the best I can do out there."
That means handling the dirty work so Palffy and Robitaille can score. Belanger has always been an offensive center, in junior hockey and the minor leagues, but he was trying to learn to play at both ends of the ice earlier in camp because it seemed that the top two offensive centers were going to be Stumpel and Bryan Smolinski.
Now they're Belanger and Smolinski.
Belanger's job is different from that of Smolinski, who plays on a line with rugged Glen Murray and speedy Craig Johnson.
"I have to go into the corners," Belanger said. "I've got to skate and feed those two guys. I've got to make space to give those guys some room."
Advice has been plentiful.
"I played with Ziggy in Bakersfield and I think we played pretty good together," Belanger said. "He talked a lot to me out there. He said just to do my job, if I get a shot just to put it on net and they would be there. He said not to play different, just play the way that got you here."
Robitaille, Quebecois like Belanger, has been talking with the youngster for years.
"Luc's been great with me," Belanger said. "I had been watching him for years back home.
"My first year, he took me aside and said, 'Don't be nervous. It's just hockey.'
"I know he's been in the league 15 years and he knows what I'm going through [tonight]. He's told me, 'Do what you did in training camp and you'll be all right. Just do the same thing.' "
For Belanger, the beginning of his NHL career is the end of a long trip fraught with misfortune. Two years ago, he suffered a broken nose on the first day of training camp, stood out in a scrimmage on the second day and suffered a broken arm on the third.
During the season, at Springfield, he encountered back trouble, and at season's end, while moving his furniture to his Sherbrooke home, his right arm swelled and a circulation problem was found that required removing his top right rib to repair.
That cost him a second training camp.
Now all the rehabilitation has paid off in an NHL job.
For as long as it lasts.
Belanger knows there is one way to make certain it lasts a long time.
"I'm wearing a Kings' jersey," he said. "I've had injuries and they've been awesome with me. It's the team that's giving me my first chance in the NHL and I don't want to disappoint them. I know I'm able to play in the NHL. I want to show everyone."