By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – Saskatchewan felt a little colder to Tyler MacKay this November as he sat at home plotting his future.
For the first time since he learned how to skate as a child, the thought that hockey might not be a part of it crept into his mind.
Those thoughts are long gone.
MacKay has found new hockey life between the pipes for the Florida Everblades. Since being acquired in a trade with the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies on Feb. 4 for defenseman Tom Reimann, the 25-year-old goaltender has posted a 15-3-2 record with a 2.00 goals against average and .924 save percentage.
That effort is a major factor behind Florida clinching an ECHL playoff spot and its pursuit of the American Conference’s third seed.
“It’s a hell of a run here,” said MacKay, who is currently ranked seventh in the league with a 2.20 goals against average overall. “It’s a dream situation. Every night the guys in front of me are letting me see the puck; they’re keeping a lot of the shots to the outside. All the defensemen and forwards are backchecking and doing a wonderful job putting goals on the board, and that makes it a little bit easier for me.”
MacKay’s effort is just what the Blades needed as both of its goalies, Rob Zepp (knee) and Craig Kowalski (groin), went down with injuries in the same game on Jan. 29. After a one-game appearance by Southern Professional Hockey League loaner goalie Terry Dunbar, MacKay was acquired and started the next 10 games and 20 of the last 25. Zepp returned in late February and is working his way back into shape, while Kowalski remains sidelined.
“Injuries are a part of this game,” MacKay said. “They’re both working hard to get back in the nets, and I’m working hard to keep my job too.”
MacKay has earned the respect of his teammates. Blades defenseman Tim O’Connell said it didn’t hurt that MacKay won his first three starts with Florida.
“We got a lot of confidence in him and it just went from there and obviously he’s done a great job ever since, ” O’Connell said.
“He’s played outstanding,” said Florida coach Gerry Fleming. “We challenged him, he’s met our challenges and gone beyond our expectations and hopefully he just continues on the same path.”
Although feeling great before the season, the breaks did not go MacKay’s way.
He signed with San Diego in the offseason and was assigned to training camp with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.
After a short stay, Cincinnati sent him back to San Diego, and not long after, a couple other goalies followed. By mid-October, MacKay was sent packing, the loser of a numbers game.
Then the waiting game began. October turned to November. Thanksgiving gave way to Christmas and finally, on Dec. 28, MacKay signed with the Bullies to backup ironman starter Jake Moreland. Moreland started 26 in a row before MacKay ended that streak with his first start, a 5-2 loss to Bakersfield on Jan. 12.
MacKay said he “was in kind of in awe” that he was out of hockey for so long.
“Especially last year, I had some really good numbers, and coming into this year I was expecting good things. But the (NHL lockout) was tough on a lot of people, and I was one of the guys who got caught by it, kind of,” said MacKay, who went 17-5-2 with a 2.24 GAA for the Wheeling Nailers last season.
Having spent each of his first three ECHL seasons with Wheeling, MacKay knew all about Atlantic City, and he admits it was not one of his favorite places to play. That didn’t change once he signed there.
MacKay played in only four games for the Bullies and struggled, going 0-4 with a 3.41 GAA and .866 save percentage.
“It just didn’t work out and then they called me into the office and told me I was traded to Florida, and I don’t think they could have got the grin off my face,” MacKay said.
Despite MacKay’s play, the Blades acquired the rights to a fourth goaltender, Chris Madden, last Tuesday. Madden is currently with the AHL’s Providence Bruins and would not be available to Florida until Providence is eliminated from the playoffs.
MacKay is not about to let a potential numbers game in Florida bother him.
“Gerry and (associate coach) Jay (Nobili) are both going to put the guy who’s playing well, they’re going to put him in net,” MacKay said. “They flat out told us, ‘Just go out there and do your job.’ That’s the way you want it to be.”
And MacKay’s playing for more than his job this season. He’s thinking about his future as well.
“I have to put up the best numbers that I can right now, and I’m looking to next year,” MacKay said. “Who knows if I can get an American League contract out of this if we have a good run in the playoffs.”