Portland goalie Jhonas Enroth
takes the ice each game with ambitions that seem realistic only in his optimistic mind.
"Every game starts zero-zero. I think we can win every game," he said. "Every game I try to think positive, try to get a shutout every game. I really want to not give up any goals. The games mean more when you are under pressure. You have to do good."
Even as Enroth falls short of that perfection -- as all goalies must -- the Pirates have been much better for his pursuit of it.
The second-year netminder and scalding-hot Portland have been a lockstep tandem the past several weeks. Portland entered the weekend on a 10-game winning streak, and Enroth was the goalie in nine of those contests. Overall, he is second in the AHL in wins (25), tied for third in shutouts (four) and eighth in goals-against average (2.40).
And the real shine on those numbers comes from how they grew out of the one thing Enroth tries to shovel out of his mind like a rebound around the crease -- adversity.
The first kick of sand in his face came at the start of the season. Enroth, a second-round pick by the Sabres in 2006, cruised into his second season after rookie campaign in which he went 26-23-6 with a 2.75 GAA and .910 save percentage.
"I think my rookie year was pretty good," said Enroth, a native of Stockholm, Sweden. "I think the end of the year went well. I always knew I could play at this level."
Opponents must have forgotten to look at Enroth's resume when he came back as this season, however. He gave up five goals in his first game, and five more in his second. At the end of October, the expected rock was more like a pebble with a 3-7 record, a 3.90 GAA and an .872 save percentage.
"I don't know (why). For sure, I started slow," Enroth said. "I had bad confidence. I had a bad first game. My second game was bad, too. I just had a hard time."
Pirates coach Kevin Dineen
said Enroth's struggles were more a reflection of the issues Portland's defense was having as a unit.
"I wouldn't say there was any second-year hangover. We had a lot of turnovers early on," Dineen said. "We gave up a lot of quality chances. A lot of teams put a lot of pressure on us. We didn't react well to it. I think we accept pressure a lot better when we're under siege (now). We have better chemistry between our defensive partners. The team didn't get off to a great start. But he's played very well since."
Buffalo took notice. On Nov. 7 the Sabres tapped Enroth for his first NHL start, against the Bruins. The game didn't go precisely as Enroth envisioned, but he's benefited ever since.
Boston put four pucks past Enroth in a 4-2 Bruins win. Buffalo then returned him to Portland, where Enroth has been treating the rest of the AHL like one of those squishy balls you squeeze to relieve stress and frustration.
In December, Enroth went 4-3-1 with a 1.49 GAA and .945 save percentage. In January he was 8-3-0 with a 1.87 GAA and .934 save percentage. So far in February, he's 7-0-0 with a 2.14 GAA and .930 save percentage.
It's amazing what one NHL loss can do when it dents the mental dreamscape you create for yourself.
"I think that helped me a lot, that game, even though it was a loss," said Enroth, 21. "It felt good that the Sabres coaching staff trusted me. Since then I've been playing with better drive. I think this year I'm a little more comfortable. I know what it takes to win games, playing hard every game. Everybody wants to get to the next level. You really have to play hard down here."
Enroth wears a combative shell with the comfort of a chest protector. As the middle of three hockey-playing boys, he was bombarded by shots from his siblings growing up.
In Enroth's case, growing up is a relative term. His status as a top prospect is a tribute to his intelligence and technique since he's a physical project at just 5-foot-10 and 166 pounds.
"I know I have to be one step ahead of everybody else. I have to be more ready, because I can't use my size," he said.
"The one thing that stands out more than anything for him is his compete level," Dineen said. "He's a hard guy to keep off the ice. His reflexes and ability to be in the right place, he certainly has the ability to position himself well. He's found his groove, and we'll keep riding him. He's got a bright NHL future."
Enroth, naturally, sees that for himself as well. The difference with picturing the ultimate goal is that he views it as something to gradually build toward, not as an impossibly high standard dominating his thoughts every night.
"I think a goalie has to be patient, wait for your chance," he said. "When you get it, you have to take it. You have to stay positive, play good, just don't try to think about the NHL that much. Of course, I want to play my second game in the NHL. Right now, I can wait for my chance."