On the surface, Sound Tigers goaltenders Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson have a lot in common. They were born 24 days apart in the spring of 1990. Both grew up playing hockey and developed an affinity for standing in the way of vulcanized rubber traveling at high speeds. Both were drafted by the Islanders organization and played well enough in their first professional seasons (Poulin in 2010-11, Nilsson in 2011-12) to earn a call-up to the NHL. Both got hot and won AHL Goaltender of the Month honors last season with Bridgeport (Poulin in January, Nilsson in February).
They handed the baton back and forth past season, combining to play 4384 of the team's 4612 minutes en route to a Northeast Division Championship. Now, both are in Sound Tigers Training Camp to once again push each other to the next level in the crease.
“We’re both young guys, we’re the same age - it’s competition," Nilsson said. "You know you need to be prepared every day you go to the ice. You can’t take a day off. If you have a couple games where you’re off, you know he’s going to play the next game. I probably make him play at a higher level because he makes me play at a higher level.”
Despite the apparent similarities, Goaltending Coach Mike Dunham is quick to point out that no two goalies are the same. Nilsson hails from Lulea, SWE, grew up playing on European rinks, and relies on his 6’5, 220-pound frame to fill the net and stop pucks. He's has been working with Dunham to adapt to the North American style.
“Overall the hockey is different,” Nilsson said of the transition to the North American game. “Over here, the forwards come in the zone and shoot the puck to the net and look for rebound opportunities. In Europe, players will take the zone and look more for an open pass. Here, you need to be aware of everything that happens, because they’ll throw pucks at the net from anywhere. If you leave a bad rebound it’s going to end up in the net.”
Nilsson has been working on his positioning with Dunham, so that he can take advantage of his size.
“He’s actually adapted very well to the North American style of hockey,” Dunham said. “We’re trying to work on getting him square to the puck. Because he takes up so much net, if he’s in position and square to the puck, it’s going to hit him.”
Poulin, on the other hand, is from Montreal, QC, and played junior hockey with the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. At 6’2, 211-pounds, Poulin still has the size necessary to be an effective netminder, but relies more on his quickness and athleticism.
“Kevin is very quick, he’s got good reflexes and reads plays well,” Dunham said. “He’s a competitor. He wants to be in there and win those big games for you. He’s had a good progression over the last couple of years. He’s proven that he’s a top goalie at the AHL level. He’s very confident, which is a great asset to have as a goaltender. He knows he’s going to stop the puck.”
The relationship between two goalies on a team can be strange. They compete to be better than the other in practice, with the knowledge that poor performance will earn them a spot on the bench. But even when wearing a ball cap instead of a goalie mask, they have to root for the team to succeed, which means rooting for their everyday rival to succeed.
“You want to work hard during practice,” Poulin said. “You want to earn ice time and wins, but you want to win every game, even if you’re on the bench.”
|Mike Dunham watches Anders Nilsson during a drill at Saturday's practice (Photo: New York Islanders) |
Many players in the AHL know they are one phone call away from a trip to the big leagues. If the starting goalie on an NHL team is injured or traded, it’s usually the hot goalie on the AHL squad who gets the call. Dunham says that even though timing is important, the best goaltenders will make it to the NHL one way or another.
“You want to get called up and get to the next level,” Dunham said of playing in the minor leagues. “What I think guys are starting to realize is that if you’re good enough, you’re going to make it somewhere, sometime. It’s not just the one shot. And that’s why they have to continue to improve and be the best goaltenders that they can be. If they’re good enough, they’re going to make it.”
Poulin got his first shot in the NHL in 2010-11, at age 20. After playing well in Bridgeport, he was called up to the Islanders and stopped all 19 shots he faced in a relief appearance on Jan. 6 at Edmonton. He appeared in nine more games over the next month, posting a 4-2-1 record before going back to the Sound Tigers to continue his development. Poulin played in six more games for the Islanders last season, fueling his hunger to be a full-time NHLer.
“The NHL is where I want to play,” Poulin said. “I think I’m ready to play in the NHL and I just want the opportunity to show what I can do. Right now, the best place I can play is with the Sound Tigers. I’ll make the best of it, and I’ll just work harder and try to get a spot.”
Nilsson, the Islanders third round pick in 2009, played four seasons in his native Sweden with Lulea HF before moving to North America before the 2011-12 season. He played 25 games for the Sound Tigers last season, posting a 15-8-2 record, challenging Poulin for playing time all season until an ankle injury in March put Nilsson on the shelf the rest of the way. Nilsson was called up to the Islanders in November and again in March, earning his first career win with a 24-save shutout of the New Jersey Devils on March 4.
Dunham says that both goaltenders have a shot as full-time NHL players, and more reps at the AHL level will make them into seasoned veterans by the time they get there.
“I think the biggest thing for both of them is experience and playing a lot of games and fine-tuning their games at the pro level,” Dunham said. “It’s an ongoing process and progression. When you’re a professional, I think it’s more mental than anything. These kids now have been trained so well technically. They know how to stop the puck. So it’s about figuring out how to deal with giving up a couple goals early in a game and how to bounce back. Or how to bounce back from bad games. And it’s the same thing when you’re playing well. It’s about how to keep it going.”
Poulin and Nilsson’s friendly competition will continue, probably through Training Camp, the regular season and beyond. And if all goes well, they may even be bringing the best out of each other someday as New York Islanders.