By Andrew Miller
Of The Post and Courier Staff
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – It must be the number.
When rookie goalie Maxime Daigneault put on his first professional jersey with the South Carolina Stingrays, something just didn’t feel right.
Oh, the fit of the jersey was perfect. It was just the number — 31.
Like most hockey players and especially goalies, Daigneault is a superstitious sort.
Just before the Christmas break, Daigneault was mired in one of the worst slumps of his young career. During one three-game stretch, he had given up 20 goals. His confidence was at an all-time low.
He knew he needed to make some changes in his game, but first he needed to get his old number back. He had worn No. 79 while winning two championships for Val-d’Or Foreurs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“It started in juniors,” Daigneault said. “I won a couple of championships with No. 79, so I wanted it back. I’m superstitious.”
When Daigneault returned from Christmas break, South Carolina Stingrays coach Jason Fitzsimmons had a new jersey for the Washington Capitals’ second-round pick.
“Maxime had mentioned to me that he wanted to wear No. 79 and I know how players can be about jersey numbers,” Fitzsimmons said.
Daigneault has been on a tear ever since. Daigneault is 6-1-0 since the Christmas break, including a perfect 6-0-0 mark in the month of January.
During the Stingrays’ recent franchise-record 10-game winning streak, Daigneault posted a 6-0-0 record with a goals-against average of 1.65 and a save percentage of .946. The 21-year-old was named the ECHL goalie of the month on Thursday.
“Maxime has been tremendous since Christmas,” Fitzsimmons said. “You could argue that he’s been one of the main reasons we went on our streak.”
Jersey number aside, Daigneault said a slight adjustment in his playing style has been the major factor in his recent success.
As a butterfly goalie, Daigneault had a tendency to drop to his knees too quickly at the beginning of the season. As a result, the majority of goals that were being scored against him came on high shots.
“I needed to be more patient, to stay on my feet longer,” Daigneault said. “I was going down too early and at the pro level they’ll go top shelf every time.”
It was just a subtle change, but one that has paid huge dividends.
“It was a gutsy move, because he went to kind of a mixed style,” said Stingrays veteran goalie Kirk Daubenspeck. “A lot of players won’t make changes like that. It showed me that he was willing to learn and adjust his game to get better.”
Daigneault has also benefited from a little extra attention from the Washington Capitals, the Stingrays’ NHL affiliate. Dave Prior, the Capitals’ goalie coach, spent a week with Daigneault in early January working on his game.
“Maxime is a very technical goaltender and he needs to play the game smart,” Prior said. “He has a big frame, so he doesn’t have the luxury that some smaller goaltenders have with speed and quickness. He has to play a very disciplined style to be successful. He has to take the net away. The one thing that we continually work on is controlling his rebounds. Sometimes they’re too far away for him to deal with, but dangerous enough for someone to come in and tap them in.”
With Daubenspeck gone to Portland of the American Hockey League for the remainder of the season, the Stingrays’ starting spot falls to Daigneault. It’s a situation he said he’s ready for.
“I’m excited about it,” Daigneault said. “It’s a challenge, but I think I’m ready for it. I’m playing with a lot more confidence now. Confidence is huge for me. ”
Of course, the new jersey number didn’t hurt it either.