He might wear the traditional green and gold of the London Knights, but once the jersey comes off there's no question Austin Watson is all black and blue.
The 20-year-old played a key role in helping the Knights sweep the Kitchener Rangers to capture the Western Conference title last week. And while his five points in four games was definitely welcomed, Watson's real value came from what he does better than anyone else – blocking shots.
"I've got a couple bumps and bruises, but that's playoff hockey," said the forward. "Everybody here is doing all they can to help the team win and if that means blocking a shot or scoring a goal, that's what we're going to do."
Late in the third period of Game 4, with their series against the Rangers on the line, Watson hit the ice – flat out – to stop a hard shot from Kitchener's Cody Sol. Just watching it was enough to make you wince.
"Yeah, it hurt a little bit," said Watson. "But I was more disappointed in myself for losing the faceoff, so I had to make up for it there."
Watson plays the game with more calculated risk than reckless abandon. He knows the consequences for his gamble only too well after breaking his ankle blocking a shot during the 2010 CHL Top Prospects game in Windsor. That bad break cost him more than a month out of the lineup with his then-team, the Peterborough Petes. While he's always aware of the potential perils of stopping pucks without the protection of goalie gear, Watson doesn't allow those fears to creep into his thoughts.
"Once you're in the game you'd don't really think about prior stuff," said Watson, the eldest of Mike and Mary Watson's 10 children. "Obviously, breaking an ankle is not something that you want to do and obviously it's something that I'll remember for the rest of my life, but going forward it's nothing that you really think about."
But it's that same kind of defensive mindset that helped him become a first-round pick of the Nashville Predators (18th overall) in the 2010 NHL entry draft. He notes that shot-blocking is part instinct and part conscious decision when he sees the puck in the danger zone.
"The first thought when the puck goes to the point and you're in the lane is, ‘OK, get in front of it,' " explains Watson. "But sometimes you're able to use a tactic or go down on one knee (to block a shot). Sometimes it's just sprawling and hoping it hits you.
"It's one of those things I like to think I do well, and when you have strengths as a hockey player you can't stop using them. If it's blocking shots that helps us win, then I'm going to continue doing that."
It's that kind of dedication to an often painful art form – a stat that never shows up on a gamesheet – that has gained Watson admirers amongst fans and hockey insiders alike.
"I hope they like it because it does hurt a little bit," said Watson with a smile. "I just think it's something that a lot of people can appreciate."
The NHL team that drafted him certainly does.
"It's one of those little intangible things," said Jeff Kealty, chief amateur scout of the Nashville Predators. "We like players that are big on those sorts of things because we believe that a lot of those little things add up to the big things that help your team win."
It's no surprise, then, that Watson was highly sought after when the struggling Peterborough Petes made it known he was available for trade prior to the January trade deadline. However, after his participation with Team USA at the world junior championship, Watson decided to return home to await a deal.
The Knights were the eventual winners, though it wasn't as much a trade as it was theft, with the Petes receiving a prospect in Junior B, two second-round picks and a conditional third-round pick based on Watson's return for an overage season. It's understandable that other OHL general managers were confounded that a player of Watson's calibre could have been had for so little, even with the star sitting at home.
"We were very close on the Austin Watson situation but unfortunately we weren't able to get that done," Kitchener coach and GM Steve Spott told Waterloo Region Record reporter Josh Brown at the trade deadline. "In our mind our offer was as good or better as what Peterborough received."
The irony of Watson helping knock out the Rangers and the thought of what might have been were not lost on the long-time coach after their series.
"We could have used him," said Spott with a smile.
This season Watson was voted as the Western Conference's best penalty-killer and lost the title of best shot-blocker to Plymouth's Jamie Devane by two points.
"He's got a very solid two-way mindset," said Kealty. "He's always killed penalties, and with that comes blocking shots and getting into shooting lanes and doing those things. We've been watching him since his first year in Windsor and those are the things he's always done, so it's something that we really value in his game."
The native of Ann Arbor, Mich., started his junior career with the Windsor Spitfires where he won a Memorial Cup in 2008-09, playing alongside an all-star cast that included future NHLers Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique. He said he'll be bringing that expertise to the Knights as they gear up for what's expected to be a gruelling OHL final against the Niagara IceDogs.
"I think that's definitely huge, especially for me in terms of hopefully being a leader on the ice," said Watson of his Memorial Cup experience. "It's leading by example. I saw a lot of great players play and noticed some of the stuff they did and how consistent they were. That's going to help me and our team going forward."
What also helps going forward are the extra days of rest Watson and the Knights were able to get for sweeping Kitchener.
"It's definitely nice," said Watson of the much deserved time off. "The playoffs are a long haul and it's always a blessing when you get a couple days off. We're going to use that to our advantage and then focus on the next one."
The break allows for some of those bumps and bruises to heal in just in time for another round of punishment. He said he'll do whatever it takes for another shot at a title even if that means taking a few rubber bullets for his teammates – though he always hopes the shooters aren't accurate in finding his weak spots.
"The top of the knee really hurts, where the shin pad ends," said Watson. "You always hope to get hit in some kind of padding, but sometimes that doesn't happen so you put some ice on it and you come back for the next game."