It takes Sam Warning a minute to remember his first career goal, but once he does, it comes with a smile.
"It was off a shin pad, I think, from (Jake Baker)," he said. "It took me a while to get going here. I wasn't sure if I was going to get shipped out or not. I wasn't producing when I first got here."
Warning had just two assists in his first 11 games as a rookie before his first goal with the Quad-City Mallards back in 2015. But those fears, justified or not, were unrealized, and two seasons later Warning is now the face of the franchise and one of its most consistent offensive pieces.
Warning leads the Mallards with five goals and six points heading into tonight's game against the Indy Fuel, the same team Warning scored his first goal against two seasons ago.
"To be honest, I've got to give a lot of credit to my linemates (Tristan King, Matt Pohlkamp, Justin Kovacs and Brayden Low), those guys are unbelievable," Warning said. "They work so hard, it makes the game a lot easier for me. I've got to give a lot of credit to those guys because they do a lot of the dirty work that goes unnoticed."
That quickness to deflect praise to his teammates has been the way Warning has operated since coming to the Mallards two years ago, the lingering effects of a broken finger suffered in a summer prospect camp perhaps the culprit for his slow start. He finished his rookie year with 16 goals and 15 assists.
He was one of the first players to re-sign that offseason and enjoyed a stellar sophomore season with 24 goals and 30 assists, finishing fourth on the team in points.
Through 139 career games, he's scored 45 goals and added 46 assists but along with providing the Mallards a reliable offensive weapon, Warning is now trying to develop into a leader as the longest-tenured player on the team.
"I’ve had the luck to have guys like (former Mallards captain) Darren McMillan and a bunch of guys like that, just great leaders, and they’ve taught me some things, and I try to teach the younger guys that stuff," Warning said. "Coming into this year I felt more comfortable, and in some sense I need to be a leader too."
Warning has always had standout end-to-end speed, but where his game has most notably changed this season is in his physicality. Warning has had several big hits and is routinely finishing his checks at a much higher rate through the first six games. Some of that comes from skating in the American Hockey League training camp this preseason with the Chicago Wolves, but it also comes from the team trying to establish its style in Phil Axtell's first full year as head coach.
"I think that's just our brand of hockey, that's our identity as a team this year," Warning said. "We're going to play hard between the whistles, and I don't think we're going to be blowing teams out by any means so I think we're going to be winning games 4-2 or 4-3. They're going to be close games so you've got to compete every shift."
That edge has led to an uptick in penalties as Warning has 14 penalty minutes after never eclipsing 28 in any prior season, but 10 of those came on a misconduct call in the first game.
And while Warning acknowledges he needs to curb the "dumb" penalties, his play is a welcome sign for Axtell.
"It's been great to have a player that can go to levels we hadn't seen before, but that's what we needed," he said. "It's awesome to see him here for the third year and already kicking it in gear."
At some point, if this play continues, Axtell thinks Warning will get a look from an AHL team, whether it be their affiliate Chicago Wolves or another team.
"I hope he does," he said. "I know it's going to hurt the team, but I think we have guys that can fill the holes just like he filled the holes before. We're starting to figure things out; that's what we're here for. That's why he came back was to come here and do well and get a chance in the American League."
Warning has never had a shot with an AHL team during the season, and while that's his ultimate goal, he doesn't concern himself with questions of why that hasn't happened yet. While he's down in the Quad-Cities, his only focus is helping the Mallards win.
"This is a developmental league, and I think everybody knows that everybody’s goal is to move up in hockey," Warning said. "But that’s one thing I’ve always been pretty good at is whenever I come down here, and it’s been two seasons already, I really don’t sit here and dwell about it. I don’t even think about it, to be honest with you.
"I’m really just worried about the guys in the locker room."