LONDON, ON – It’s safe to say goaltender Michael McNiven played his heart out on Saturday night.
The 18-year-old turned in a 47-save performance to pace Sylvain Lefebvre’s troops to a 6-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs’ young guns at the 2015 Rookie Tournament at Budweiser Gardens, upping the Canadiens’ record to 1-0-1 at the three-day event in Southwestern Ontario which will come to a close on Sunday.
“It was awesome. I faced over 50 shots out there, but the boys blocked a lot more of them and that made it easier on me. After making the first few saves, I was right in there and I felt great. I was getting tired near the end, but we held it together and we got the win,” offered McNiven, who received plenty of goal support against Toronto courtesy of Jamal Watson, Tim Bozon, Connor Crisp, Dalton Thrower and Charles Hudon. “With it being my first start, it meant the world to me with all of these guys here. They worked hard, and I worked hard, too. We all just came together as a team.”
In McNiven’s case, the victory was particularly sweet given the amount of work he’s put in to fine-tuning his fitness level since early July, when he admittedly arrived at development camp overweight. Since then, he’s tried to turn things around by consulting with the likes of renowned strength and conditioning coach, Ben Prentiss, for advice and guidance in the nutrition department. McNiven’s work on Saturday night is a good indicator that his efforts have paid off.
“Losing 10 pounds from development camp and everything, I guess it just all fits together. Hopefully, I can lose a bit more and I will be a bit better than that down the road, too,” shared the Georgetown, ON native, who posted a 15-8-0 record and a 2.79 goals-against average in 24 games with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack in 2014-15, but went undrafted back in late June in Miami. “I also just loved getting that win playing in front of friends and family. A lot of them are die-hard Leafs fans, but they’re going to be happy for me. I’m sure I’ll be giving them a hard time about it, though. It was great.”
For his part, Lefebvre was quick to praise McNiven’s play against Toronto, commending his willingness to log the necessary man hours in recent weeks to try to take his game to a brand new level.
“Sometimes, messages are hard to take for some kids. It’s like when they make a mistake, [it’s important to look at] how they react and what they do to get better. They need to understand that we’re there to help them. Michael took that to heart and he did what was asked. Now, he’s seeing that it’s working,” explained Lefebvre, who admired McNiven’s compete level in his first outing in rather unfamiliar territory. “He battled. He made some big saves. He sees the play well. I’m sure that he wanted to play well because he’s from the area, but you’ve got to give him credit. He’s a battler. We saw some good things.”
Michael McCarron shared similar thoughts in the aftermath of McNiven’s strong showing in the Forest City.
“It just shows his work ethic. Everyone here in this organization is known as hard workers. That’s what they try to have our mentality as. If he continues to work, the sky’s the limit for him,” mentioned McCarron, who is also a product of the OHL ranks. “Being so young, it was unbelievable to see how well he played against the Leafs. I was super excited for him. He held the door closed for us and gave us a chance to win.”
McNiven, who claimed the FW Dinty Moore Award as the OHL’s top rookie goalie last season, insists that being around quality people over the years has played an important part in his recent success. Top prospect Zachary Fucale – with whom he’s sharing the crease in London – just happens to be one of those guys.
“Zach and I met a couple of years ago at the development camp for goaltenders for Team Canada. It was great meeting him. He taught me a lot. He taught me to be humble and everything that goes with that. On and off the ice, he’s just a great guy. In the hotel, at the rink, he’s always leading by example and kind of showing me the way. I like that a lot because he’s a good guy to be around in that position,” praised McNiven, who also has the utmost respect for four-time NHL All-Star, Carey Price - and with good reason. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be like Carey. I’m not as sound as him. But, it’s good to watch him, learn things and try to translate that into my game. I’d love to play like that, but there’s a lot of hard work involved [in making that a reality].”
That being said, McNiven has a clear vision of what he’d like to accomplish in the immediate future as rookie camp continues under the watchful eye of the Canadiens’ brass.
“Obviously, signing an entry-level contract would be great. Being around Fucale and the guys, it’s just a great opportunity to learn and kind of see what it’s like to be in this position,” offered McNiven, who prides himself on possessing a quick glove hand, and a unique ability to move around his goal crease with relative ease. “It’s a great eye-opener for me, so I’m going to use it to my advantage.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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