LAVAL - After Michael McNiven finished his journey in Junior and turned pro this season, he probably wasn't expecting to be the number-one goalie for an American Hockey League team quite so soon.
But due to a slew of injuries which afflicted several goalies in the Canadiens organization, the 20-year-old quickly climbed the ladder and found himself tending goal for the Laval Rocket.
"It's a good experience being up here instead of Brampton. It's only going to make me better. Everything is faster and quicker. We have a good group of guys here, so they've helped me along," acknowledged McNiven, who has a 2-3-0 record with the Habs' farm club. "I've just been given opportunities and I have to make the most of them."
While he would like to be playing with a bit more consistency, the Manitoban is still in learning mode. After all, he is just a few months removed from Junior, where he was named Canadian Hockey League goalie of the year for the 2016-17 campaign.
"I feel I could be a little more consistent, but yes. Every day, I need to keep working," he explained. "My job is to stop the puck, so I have to keep doing that."
McNiven got the call-up after his fellow Habs netminders started dropping like flies. With Carey Price and Al Montoya on the shelf in November, the Rocket found themselves without a goalie after both Charlie Lindgren and Zach Fucale were called up by the big club.
"It's not just us, Las Vegas is in the same situation. It happens so quickly, so it doesn't matter if you're in the East Coast [Hockey League] or even Junior. Las Vegas' backup goalie a week ago was a kid [from] Junior," McNiven said in referencing the Kamloops Blazers' Dylan Ferguson, who was called up on an emergency basis by the NHL's newest club. "You just always have to be ready, and when you get your opportunity, you have to make sure you're in the best shape possible. You just need to be ready 100%."
Being in the best shape possible has a totally different meaning than it does in Junior, and that's one of the challenges facing the young netminder, who was never drafted.
"He's young, and he's a competitive goalie. So he has to develop certain habits and have a certain personal discipline in order to maintain those habits, whether that be off-ice or even on the ice," outlined Rocket head coach Sylvain Lefebvre. "His cardio needs to be good and he needs to be in good shape."
On the ice, McNiven is well on his way to adjusting to life as a professional. Or at the very least, the experience is exactly what he was expecting it to be.
"Since my first game in Springfield, it's everything I expected. It took me a game to adjust there, that game in Springfield. Everything is starting to slow down for me, it's becoming a little bit easier every day," admitted McNiven. "It's starting to turn into a thinking game; you have to start reading the play more, knowing who has a left-handed or right-handed shot and reading where the shot is coming from. I'm trying to think a bit more, know where everyone is on the ice at all times and just keep my speed up with them."
McNiven can also count on Fucale's support to help with his adjustment. The two have known each other for a little while now, having participated in several Team Canada Program of Excellence camps in Calgary over the last few years.
"It was frustrating going to those camps, because I had never had a goalie coach before. During some of the drills, it was a bit tougher for me when I was younger. Zach would always say to me, 'We'll see you around. Don't worry, everything will work out,'" recalled McNiven. "Funnily enough, two years later I end up in the same place he is.
"He's been nothing but a good guy and goalie partner. He's never negative, he's always a positive guy," he concluded. "That helps a lot with learning, as well as in games and everyday life."