Jake Oettinger said this season with the Dallas Stars has been "a dream come true."
The rookie goalie is 5-3-6 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in 17 games, including 14 starts. Despite allowing three goals in a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Sunday, he has helped the Stars stay afloat in an up-and-down season following their trip to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, losing in six games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Dallas (11-12-9) is six points out of a playoff spot in the Discover Central Division entering its game at the Nashville Predators on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; FS-TN, FS-SW, NHL.TV). In a rematch of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday, he made 24 saves in 4-3 win against the Lightning and helped end goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy's 12-game winning streak. He also he turned in a candidate for save of the year with a paddle stop against Lightning forward Ondrej Palat.
Video: TBL@DAL: Oettinger robs Palat in front with paddle
"Just to have the opportunity I have and to show up every day, to be a Dallas Star, has been crazy," Oettinger said. "I just want to make the most of it. I just think so far, it's been an unbelievable year."
In a season where goalie Ben Bishop has not played because offseason surgery on his right knee, the Stars have needed Oettinger to share the workload with starter Anton Khudobin.
But those who have worked with the 22-year-old say rising to the challenge is what drives Oettinger.
"He's been a kid who hasn't been afraid to make a tough decision and never really shied away from a tough assignment," said Brian Eklund, Oettinger's goaltending coach at Boston University from 2016-19. "He just does a great job of being able to handle that pressure that a lot of people, they have to take time to learn it."
Selected by Dallas with the No. 26 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Oettinger made his NHL debut in a pressure-packed situation last season, coming in for Khudobin for the third period of Game 2 of the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. He saved all five shots he faced in a 3-0 loss and became the first goalie in the modern era (since 1943-44) to make his debut in the round leading into the Stanley Cup Final since Bob Champoux of the Detroit Red Wings in the 1964 NHL Semifinals.
"This isn't just a freebie. He deserves to be here," Stars forward Jason Dickinson said. "It's right place, right time for guys to find their game and make a statement for themselves, and Jake's doing that. He's looking more and more comfortable every night, he's strong and confident between the pipes. We feel good with him in the net and he's making a strong case for why he should be in the NHL."
Oettinger was playing for Lakeville High School in Minnesota when Kevin Reiter, the former goaltending coach for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, invited him to try out for the 2014-15 team. He made the roster.
"When I first got to the NTDP, I was just so raw and hadn't had a ton of coaching up to that point," Oettinger said. "I owe so much to him. I know he's done that with all the goalies he's helped in the program, so I'm really fortunate to have had him and to have been coached by him. He just did such a good job of developing me and helping me get ready to play college."
The preparation paid off in 2016 when Oettinger went to Boston University and became starting goalie. He was 21-11-3 with a 2.11 GAA, .927 save percentage and four shutouts as a freshman and 58-40-11 with a 2.34 GAA, .923 save percentage and 13 shutouts in 109 games.
"He was a kid that accelerated in high school to come to Boston a year early, stepped onto campus as a 17-year-old and won a starting job at a major Division I school at that age," said Eklund, now goaltending coach for Binghamton of the American Hockey League. "BU is like a little pro team. Everyone who walks through the door has the mindset that, 'I'm going to be an NHL hockey player, I'm going to push myself to be that.' When you're in that environment and everyone around you has that like mindset that we're all going to be pros, it does nothing but push you. I mean, the expectations from Day One was to win, and it's not just to win a game, it's to win a national championship. It's nothing but, from Day One, pressure, pressure, pressure."
Oettinger left college after three seasons, signing his entry-level contract with the Stars on March 25, 2019. He went 18-18-5 with a 2.55 GAA, .914 save percentage and three shutouts in 44 games during two seasons with Texas of the American Hockey League. He was with the Stars for the playoffs last season at Rogers Place in Edmonton. Playing the one period against Vegas and being in the bubble was an invaluable experience, according to Jeff Reese, the Stars goaltending coach.
"We had a lot more practice time and he actually got in a few games as well. I know it was only a period here not much time, but you build a little bit of confidence from it," Reese said. "Just to be around 'Bish,' who was around the whole time even though he was injured, and 'Dobby' was just being Dobby, and just to see how Dobby went through all of the high-pressure situations and he did it with a smile on his face was huge experience for Jake. It did nothing but good things for him, no question."
The Stars are scheduled to play 24 regular-season games between now and May 10, and they'll be relying on Oettinger for a good part of those games. He has come a long way in a short amount of time.
"I don't see how he doesn't continue to keep progressing and keep making a name for himself here and hopefully challenge to be the No. 1 guy in Dallas," Reiter said. "Now, that's barring injuries and other things happening, [but] seeing what I've seen now over the years with different goalies, different European goalies and other players we've played and who's having success [and] who's not, I really believe he has the ability and the mental makeup to play in the NHL for a long time. I really do."