MONTREAL – In his first full season as a starter in the OHL, Michael McNiven is proving his doubters wrong.
The 18-year-old Owen Sound Attack netminder, who signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Canadiens last September after going undrafted over the summer, has done nothing but impress since taking over the reins in goal in the Scenic City.
|Photo Credit: CHL Images: Aaron Bell |
The league’s top rookie goaltender last season, McNiven wasted little time proving the Canadiens’ brass made the right decision inking him to a deal following a strong showing throughout the summer after coming in as a development camp invitee in July. McNiven was particularly good at the rookie tournament in London, ON, where he backstopped the Habs’ young guns to a 6-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs’ up-and-coming stars with a 47-save effort at Budweiser Gardens.
“Getting the opportunity with Montreal after the NHL Draft didn’t go my way meant a lot. It was a huge confidence booster knowing that I didn’t go unlooked. Hard work really does pay off,” said McNiven, who has put up a 16-14-10 record, a 2.88 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage in 43 appearances with Owen Sound on the year. “I just tried to take in what I learned at development camp, rookie camp and then at main camp. I took it all to heart and I continue to do my job. I think there’s more to strive for now with my contract. It’s just another challenge I have to complete. I’m looking forward to doing it.”
McNiven’s stats so far suggest he’s definitely on the right track. Currently sitting among the top five goaltenders in the league in minutes played, total saves and shutouts, the Georgetown, ON native is also trending inside the Top 15 in victories, goals-against average and save percentage while keeping the Attack firmly in the Western Conference playoff race. That certainly isn’t easy when you’re often battling the likes of Midwest Division rivals – and perennial powerhouses – Erie, London and Kitchener, all of whom have already clinched a postseason berth. Owen Sound sits sixth in the conference with 14 games to go in the regular season.
“Obviously, being given the starting job means the world to me. I still have to battle every single day to maintain the position, though. The confidence that I get knowing that the guys are depending on me and the pressure that comes with something like that is good. I think that I thrive on pressure. It just helps me battle more and makes me better,” explained McNiven, who made a season-high 45 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss to Kitchener on Oct. 16. “I’ve just been trying to keep things consistent. We’ve been through a couple of rough patches, but the goal is to keep things rolling into the last stretch, pick up points and maybe move up a couple of spots in our conference to get ourselves in a better position.”
So, what’s been the real difference-maker for McNiven in his second OHL campaign? It’s a combination of things admits the Attack’s No. 40, who represented Team OHL during the annual CHL Canada Russia series last November.
“The biggest difference is that I’m a lot calmer in goal than I used to be, and I’m a lot more patient in different game situations. One big thing I learned in Montreal is to always keep my head on a swivel and make sure you know where everyone is at all times. That’s been a big part of my game, being aware of backdoor passes and stuff. It’s also made the game a whole lot easier on myself. I’m thinking the game, not just doing it. Being around the coaches in Montreal brought a lot more structure to my game,” explained McNiven, who also credits his strong showing between the pipes in 2015-16 to Owen Sound personnel both past and present.
“Last season, the GM [Dale DeGray] told me the Attack were looking for me to be their starter. I knew I had to mature. That comes with being around people and learning new things about leadership. I was lucky that guys like [former teammates] Zack Nastasiuk, Kyle Platzer and Chris Bigras taught me a lot,” added McNiven, who sat beside Nastasiuk, the former team captain, in the dressing room. “You saw their focus and their mental preparation for games. I took it all in. That, and the environment that our new head coach [Ryan McGill] has created, really helped me get ready for this season. It’s always happy around the rink.”
|Photo Credit: CHL Images: Aaron Bell |
And, McNiven has every reason in the world to be smiling right now, plying his trade among the top Junior players the world over and continuing to solidify his game before strutting his stuff at the Bell Sports Complex once again in five months’ time.
“It’s a special time being in Montreal. I can’t wait until the next time I get there. Given what I’ve learned this season – and taking my new skills and patience back to the AHL and NHL levels – it will be nice to see how it stands out,” concluded McNiven, who sports the #ComingInHot and #LittleSpicy hashtags on his brand new helmet to pay tribute to his love for Frank’s RedHot hot sauce – and out of superstition, too. “It’ll be good to see how well I do this year given what I was able to accomplish last season.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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