By Dave Werstine
For the Press-Telegram
LONG BEACH, Calif. – For many teams, having your No. 1 goaltender called up is a problem, especially at this point of the season when playoffs races are in the stretch run.
But for the Long Beach Ice Dogs, it’s no big deal, because they feel they have a pair of No. 1 netminders.
Olivier Michaud might have played in the shadow of Chris Madden, a two-time All-Star and among the ECHL’s top goalies, for much of the season, but he has proven to be more than a backup.
A second-year pro and a prospect in the Montreal Canadiens organization, Michaud has matured into one of the league’s best over the course of the season. So when Madden was loaned to Providence (AHL) last week for an undetermined amount of time, the Ice Dogs don’t figure to miss a beat.
“We are blessed to have two No. 1 goaltenders,” Ice Dogs coach Malcolm Cameron said. “If Michaud has to run the next 20 games or so, we’ll be just fine. I’m certainly not going to lose any sleep over it.”
The Ice Dogs (34-14-5), who have won four in a row going into Friday’s game against visiting Bakersfield, are definitely confident with Michaud in the net, and he has given them good reason to be.
But it didn’t necessarily start that way. After his first 10 starts of the season, Michaud had a 1-7-2 record -and an eight-game winless streak -staring back at him.
Michaud didn’t exactly play poorly during that stretch “like a 21-year-old goalie,” according to Cameron but he wasn’t getting any breaks or victories either.
“Winning is certainly the most important thing and it bothered me,” he said of his run of bad luck and lack of wins. “It was frustrating. I knew I had to work hard to turn luck back on my side.”
At the time, Michaud figured if he could just string together a few good games with a few wins to go along with it that he could turn the corner.
He did more than turn the corner more like a 180-degree turn -with a 32-save performance in a 4-2 victory over Greenville on Dec. 10. And he followed that up with a shutout against Fresno the next night.
Over his last 17 starts, Michaud has gone 14-2-1 and has seen his GAA fall to 2.41 and his save percentage rise to .926, which are very respectable if not among the top goaltending numbers in the ECHL.
Being teamed with Madden has helped push the two goaltenders to be their best. That is showing with Madden’s stats (19-5-1, 2.14 GAA, .941 save percentage and five shutouts) and his call up and with Michaud’s spectacular run.
“What we are seeing is his maturity level growing,” Cameron said of Michaud. “He has tremendous work ethic, and that makes up for any shortcomings he might have, like being a smaller (5-foot-11) goalie. He wants to be a high-level player.”
Like just about every hockey player, Michaud would like a shot at the NHL. But for him, he wants another chance.
Michaud, as a fresh-faced 18-year old playing with Shawinigan (QMJHL) in 2001-02, the Montreal Canadiens were in desperate need of a backup goalie and gave him the call. His stay was only about 10 days and four games, but he played the final 18 minutes in a 3-1 loss to Edmonton, stopping all 14 shots he faced.
“I was nervous,” he recalled. “It was an adrenaline rush. For a young player from the Quebec province, it’s a dream come true to play for the Canadiens. It was a surprise to get there and it was a surprise to get in.”
His willingness to get back to the NHL and stay there are what drives him.
“I’ve seen it and I know it’s what I want,” said Michaud, who is in the second year of a three-year deal with Montreal.
The NHL lockout basically cost him a season of playing at the AHL level, where he split time between Hamilton and Columbus (ECHL) last year. And there are a few goalies who stand between him and where he wants to be. But at 21, he still has some time before the window of opportunity closes on him.
“Sometimes you feel so close yet so far away at the same time,” he said of making back. “I’m still young, but I don’t want to fall into that trap of. Yeah, I still have time. I have to keep improving and that starts today.”
If he keeps playing like he is, Michaud will definitely get another chance.