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Dalton lives the dream on a bumpy floor

by Lindsay Kramer /
Goalie Matt Dalton drove the Reading Royals deep into the playoffs in style.

He didn't quite get the same treatment in return. Reading took a loaded roster on its sleeper bus overnight to start its American Conference Finals series in Cincinnati last week. A few players had to bunk on the floor.

Forget the fact that Dalton had his team's back in helping the seventh-seeded Royals reach that point. Or that he plays the most important position in the sport.

Dalton is a rookie, and rookies go on the floor. So he slept head-to-feet with some other low-rankers, trying to grab a snoozy minute or two in-between the bumps of the road and the grinds of the undercarriage.

Oh yeah, Dalton's head rested just outside the bathroom door. Nuff said about that.

"It wasn't fun. But I'm a first-year guy, so I sleep where they tell me to," he said. "It could have been worse. The bus could have broke down, or something."

It didn't, to the dismay of the Cincinnati Cyclones. After a good night's rest in Cincinnati, Dalton made 36 stops to help Reading win Game 1, 5-2, on April 30. He was even better the next night, denying 45 shots in a Game 2 win.

Those efforts continued the goalie's blazing trail this postseason. Through his first 11 games he had yet to lose in regulation -- his only two losses were in overtime -- and his .930 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average were good enough to knock off higher seeded and Kalamazoo and Florida.

"I'm seeing the puck well. Guys are playing well in front of me. It makes my job a lot easier," said Dalton, 23. "You don't have to put up the best numbers as long as your team is winning."

If there was anyone on the Royals who deserved to leap into a feather bed for a weekend, it was Dalton. He broke a team record with 2,735 regular-season minutes played and has played all 682 minutes of the Royals’ postseason. His shots-against total of 430 is the highest in the playoffs.

"A lot of times I think it was mental," he said of fighting off the fatigue. "If you let yourself feel tired, you are going to be tired. You just don't let yourself think you're tired. You keep telling yourself you feel good."

Besides, the opportunity to get that type of workload was Dalton's ticket to Reading in the first place.

Dalton jumped to the pros after two seasons at Bemidji State. He played in just five games as a freshman, but really elbowed his way to the front of the college goalie crowd last year. He went 19-11-1, 2.19, .919 and helped take the school to the Frozen Four.
That caught Boston's eye, and the Bruins signed him to a two-way deal and started him out at Providence.

The only problem with that plan was that the farm team already enjoyed the services of veteran Dany Sabourin. There was nothing but leftover morsels of minutes for the rookie, so the Bruins figured he was better off being a starter in the ECHL. Sound logic, for sure, but it left Dalton second-guessing his decision to bolt school early

"Heck yeah, for sure. I wouldn't tell people. We were losing here. But my college team was doing great," he said. "At the time I was frustrated. I felt like I could play at that (AHL) level. I didn't see the big picture. Now, I can see that was the best thing that could have happened to me. You're not going to get any better not playing. I see improvements in myself. I was like, 'Oh, this isn't that bad of a thing.' "

The strategy wound up giving Dalton more than minutes. It also force-fed him reality. Reading was an average team during the regular season as it tried to bob-and-weave among all the call-ups to field a competitive lineup. Dalton's play reflected that with so-so numbers of 22-20-4, .906, 3.47.

"It was so frustrating. Every weekend you'd see a guy get picked off our team. They were calling up our better players," Dalton said. "I just focused on trying to play as well as I could, not getting too upset by it. To the people that it mattered how I was playing, they knew what was going on."

Chief among those backers was head coach Larry Courville, who saw the Royals turn into a playoff dynamo once the roster returned to a talent level that matched the netminder's potential.

"There was probably a two-month span when we had several guys in the American League," Courville said. "We didn't do very well. He didn't have much help. He's able to get some wins under his belt because of the guys we've got in our lineup. He's definitely one of the elite goalies in this level."

"It wasn't fun. But I'm a first-year guy, so I sleep where they tell me to. It could have been worse. The bus could have broke down, or something." -- Reading's Matt Dalton

In a sense, Dalton found the challenging regular season somewhat liberating.

"As long as I can say I did the best I can do, I'm happy with that. This year has been a big learning experience for me, playing so many games, going through the ups and downs," he said. "In college, I was so worried about my numbers, so people know who you are. Right now, at this level, I just want to win."

The perks that flow from that are appreciated, too. As Dalton boarded the bus after his Game 2 win over Cincinnati, he was pleasantly surprised to see that his request for a bunk on the ride back had been honored.

"That was nice of them," he said. "My back was getting stiff from the floor."

And would that courtesy have been extended if he had begun the series 0-2 instead of 2-0?

"I wouldn't have expected one," he said.

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