With increased confidence and maturity, IceCaps rookie netminder is a legitimate NHL prospect
Heading into Friday night's game at Mile One Centre, St. John's IceCaps netminder Eddie Pasquale was third among all AHL playoff goalies in goals against average and save percentage. - Telegram file photo
Early in the New Year, on a Tuesday night, high up in the blue seats at Madison Square Garden, Eddie Pasquale and his St. John's IceCaps teammates looked on as the Winnipeg Jets, their colleagues with job seniority, skated into midtown Manhattan for a date with the New York Rangers.
For Pasquale, still classified an American Hockey League rookie despite his 24 games last season with the Chicago Wolves (25 is the magic number to determine rookie, or non-rookie, status in the AHL), the NHL game was his "aha!" moment, the beginning of the evolution of a goaltender, as it were.
"You look at the Jets, and you see guys like Floody and Gagnon," Pasquale said, referring to Jets' defenceman Mark Flood, who had started the season in St. John's, and forward Aaron Gagnon, recalled from St. John's for the Rangers game, and sent back immediately following the final whistle.
"It's an eye-opener. I hadn't been to an NHL game in a while, and you realize you're so close to that.
"You see (Winnipeg goalie Ondrej) Pavelec and (Rangers' puckstop Henrik) Lundqvist. You realize if you really want to make that league and be a starter, the opportunity is there, but you have to excel at the AHL level.
"It was a turning point, not just for me, but for a lot of the guys."
The IceCaps were in the New York neighbourhood that night, making the short jaunt down the Connecticut Turnpike from Bridgeport, treated to the game by Jets' management, which was a nice touch. The next night, St. John's would beat the Bridgeport Sound Tigers 4-3 in a shootout with Pasquale posting the win with a 29-save effort.
"You know, I see a lot of guys like Matt Hackett (who appeared in 12 games with the Minnesota Wild this year)," Pasquale said.
"I played against him in junior, and he's gone up (to the NHL). I've skated with Braden Holtby (who's backstopped the Washington Capitals to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs) a couple of times in the summer. You see these guys getting their chance.
"Growing up in minor hockey, playing in the OHL, in minor pro, you've played against those guys and you compare yourself to them. And if they can (get to the NHL), I don't see any reason why I can't do it."
After languishing through the early goings of the 2011-12 season in an uncomfortable three-goaltender rotation (Pasquale, David Aebischer and Peter Mannino), the IceCaps found some sense of normalcy between the pipes when Mannino was released before Christmas to find work elsewhere.
Pasquale, especially, thrived with the increased workload and now, as the IceCaps make a playoff run, it's the 21-year-old from Toronto who has seized control of the IceCaps' goaltending chores, providing St. John's with the big saves needed this time of year.
Entering last night's Game 4 of the IceCaps' first-round playoff series with the Syracuse Crunch, a best-of-five affair that St. John's was leading 2-1, Pasquale sported a 2.33 goals against average and a nifty .941 save percentage, third amongst playoff puckstops with 111 saves on 118 shots.
It may be a little early in the game - ah heck, let's throw it out there anyway.
Could Pasquale be another Calder Cup rookie sensation, joining the likes of Robin Lehner, who led the Binghamton Senators to an AHL championship last season, winning playoff MVP honours along the way? Or Carey Price, who did the same in 2006-07 with the Hamilton Bulldogs, after closing out his junior career out west? Or a chap named Potvin, who guided the dearly departed St. John's Maple Leafs in 1991-92 a year out of junior? Or some guy named (Patrick) Roy, who went 10-3 for the 1985-85 Sherbrooke Canadiens, less than a month removed from junior hockey?
"Right now, he's winning us the games we need to win," says the very-businesslike IceCaps coach, Keith McCambridge, who won't be dragged into any comparisons, and certainly isn't looking beyond the Crunch. "He's definitely been a factor, but right now, the focus is on the next game.
"That said, his development is at a good stage, he's making some key saves at key times of the games in playoff-intensity hockey. So, overall, he's in a good spot for himself, in this organization, and where the organization wants him to be."
Pasquale's emergence from somewhat of an unknown - he was in the Atlanta Thrashers' organization last season (Atlanta drafted him 117th overall in 2009), and came to Winnipeg with the franchise transfer - into a legit NHL prospect can be linked to two factors - confidence and maturity.
With Mannino's exodus, Pasquale began to see more work between the pipes, and was even making starts following a loss as opposed to watching from the press box the next night.
It was a sign, said McCambridge, of the organization's belief in the youngster.
"And a shot of confidence," said the coach. "But the belief was the big thing, knowing that the (coaching) staff believes in me, that they see some good things in my game. He earned that by some of the saves he was making, by his work ethic in the games and practice."
The work ethic. It's part and parcel with the maturity, or Pasquale's coming of age, according to IceCaps' goalie coach Rick St. Croix.
"If the goaltender, in my opinion, is committed and working really hard," said St. Croix, "then you are going to possibly see more improvement. I think he's worked really hard, and I think he's learning to work more like an NHL goalie needs to work.
"That would mean how you commit in practice, when you're focused and battling instead of taking it lightly. Your game-day skates are businesslike, and I think that's developing."
It means hitting the ice for optional practices, just as Pasquale did Thursday morning, the day after a 40-save, first-star performance in a 5-1 St. John's win.
"At the start of the year, I do not think he would have done that," said St. Croix, who fashioned himself a nice NHL goaltending career with the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1970s and '80s. "That doesn't mean it's right or wrong. I don't want them to think that they have to go out (to optionals). But it's an example of, 'I know that I want to get out (on the ice) more because I want to get better.'"
His playing career aside, St. Croix knows what he's talking about when it comes to goaltender development.
The man they call "Saint" can take some credit for the development of Cory Schneider, who appears to be poised to take over the No. 1 job in the Vancouver Canucks' goal next season. Schneider was the AHL's top goaltender in 2008-09 when he toiled for the Manitoba Moose, and St. Croix was an assistant coach.
"(Pasquale's) lateral movement, from post to post, is very powerful, very fast," said St. Croix. "Schneider's is too. Schneids is a bit more controlled. When he moves around, everything is square, there's not much movement in his upper body. There's not much flopping around.
"I think Eddie is getting better in that regard. Trying to compare him to Schneids, well, you're using someone who is right up there (as an NHL goaltender), in my opinion.
"But Eddie's on Winnipeg's radar, absolutely. He's definitely improved his value and in terms of what's down the road, well, it's exciting for any young goalie to taste it, to sense it, to keep working hard. There's no stopping on that end of it."
"It's gotten to a point this season," said McCambridge, "where Pasquale has really earned an opportunity to run with it, and he's done that right now.
"Eddie Pasquale's playing some real strong games."
Hopefully for IceCaps fans, there will be a lot more of those to come this spring.
Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org.