St. John’s native averaging nearly a point and a half per game in the ECHL playoffs
No doubt Michael Garteig, coming off back-to-back shutouts against the Florida Everblades to close out the Eastern Conference final, has been standing tall in the Newfoundland Growlers’ nets during the ECHL playoffs, but the man carrying the freight up front for the Cinderella expansion team has been St. John’s own Zach O’Brien.
The Growlers’ 26-year-old forward, a product of the Avalon-Celtics minor system and St. John’s Fog Devils major midget program, was tied for second in league playoff scoring entering Game 7 of the Western Conference final Wednesday night between the Tulsa Oilers and Toledo Walleye.
The Growlers will meet either Tulsa or Toledo in the Kelly Cup final starting Saturday night at Mile One Centre.
Both O’Brien and Tulsa’s Alex Dostie, a fourth-round NHL draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks three years ago, have 14 goals and 10 assists, one point less than Stephen Perfetto of the Oilers, who split the 2018-19 season between Tulsa and the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage.
O’Brien has a pair of three-goal games so far in the post season, one in the second-round, series-clinching win over the Manchester Monarchs and the other in Game 5 of the Growlers series with the Everblades.
O’Brien’s doing the heavy lifting for Newfoundland, but that’s not exactly a surprise to Growlers coach John Snowden or the team’s captain, James Melindy.
It’s what they’ve become accustomed to from the ECHL’s 13th-leading scorer during the regular season, and a second-team ECHL all-star.
“He’s been good all year,” said Snowden, “and now, he’s elevated his play even moreso.”
“He’s always been a player who produces wherever he’s been,” Melindy said. “But here and now and at home, he’s bringing it to the next level.
“The skill he has is crazy.”
With all due respect to Snowden, Melindy, also from St. John’s, can speak of O’Brien with a fair degree of familiarity. The two butted heads a bit in minor hockey, and played against each other in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Melindy with the Moncton Wildcats and O’Brien with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
They turned pro together in the American league in 2013, Melindy with the Portland Pirates and O’Brien with the Manchester Monarchs, who were then part of the AHL.
Finally, in 2016-17, the two were teammates with the ECHL’s Wichita, Kan. Thunder.
“I know one of the biggest knocks on him was he didn’t have a lot of penalty minutes, that he was a soft player,” said Melindy of O’Brien, who went through four years of major junior hockey collecting only one minor penalty (in nine full seasons of junior and pro hockey, O’Brien has a total of 26 penalty minutes, including a career-high six this year).
“But people couldn’t be any more wrong. If you watched him play night and night out, you’ll see he goes to the dirty areas. You don’t score that many goals or get that many points just being a perimeter player.
“The other D-men really play hard on him. He takes a lot of abuse, but he kind of laughs it off and goes out and scores goals.”
In Bathurst, O’Brien tallied 50 and 47 goals in his second-last and final junior campaigns. In his second season in Manchester, he had 14 goals and 32 points in 62 games, helping the Monarchs to the Calder Cup championship. He had three goals and nine points in 19 games that spring.
Despite a fine career in the QMJHL, O’Brien was not drafted. Not the biggest player on the ice, the knock on him is his skating; he’s not a poor skater, as much as he’s not quite quick enough for the National Hockey League.
"If you watched him play night and night out, you’ll see he goes to the dirty areas." — James Melindy
It might be the only knock, for O’Brien clearly has big-league skill.
“His skills with the puck are pretty amazing,” Snowden said. “And he’s got a good brain. He knows where to go on the ice, and he knows how to create space for himself.
“He’s really hard to contain one on one. He’s able to slip out of checks and get shots off in tough areas, make plays in tough areas. He has a high, high skill set, a really good hockey IQ, and an awareness of where to be on the ice and when to be there.”
And, Snowden added, there’s more to O’Brien’s game that scoring and setting up goals.
“It’s his play without the puck, his defensive game. It’s very good. You can put him out in any situation — power play, killing penalties, last minute of the game and he’s going to get the job done for you. He’ll block a shot for you or whatever it takes. He does everything the right way.
“He’s a competitive, competitive man. He wants to win and you can see that in his play right now.”
Of course, O’Brien isn’t the only player on the Growlers finding the back of the net.
"He’s a competitive, competitive man. He wants to win and you can see that in his play right now.” — John Snowden
Brady Ferguson (21 playoff points), Giorgio Estephan (17), Scott Pooley (14) and the injured Marcus Power (12 in 15 games) are also chipping in on the offence.
“Zach’s a major game-changer, to say the least,” said Melindy, “but we have a lot of game-changers in our dressing room, whether it’s him or Marcus (Power), or Pooley, (Scott) Ferguson or (Josh) Kestner …
“Having players like that breeds the confidence of knowing that when you’re in those tight games, we have the guys who can step up and get it done for us.”