VANCOUVER - Zach Fucale isn't letting disappointment on the international stage get him down.
The Halifax Mooseheads goaltender has excelled in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League since playing for the Canadian team that finished fourth at the world junior championships over the Christmas holidays.
Now, with the playoffs rapidly approaching, the Mooseheads are strong contenders to repeat as QMJHL and Memorial Cup champions.
"The guys were very supportive and they had some good words for me," said Fucale, recalling his return from Sweden. "They really supported me the whole way through, so that was really great. I'm really happy to have a great bunch of teammates like that. They helped me come back and do a good job."
Despite the heartbreaking finish in Malmo, when Canada lost to Russia in the bronze-medal game, Fucale tries to take the positives from his international experience.
"Obviously, we were very disappointed with our end result," he said. "But, for me and for the players that were there, we were really thankful for the opportunity. We did what we could. We worked hard and it was a chance to have a good experience. It can certainly help in the future and our careers."
So far, so good for Fucale, an 18-year-old Laval, Que., native who was chosen in the second round (36th overall) by his hometown Montreal Canadiens in the last summer's NHL draft.
He ranks as the league's top goaltender with a 2.35 goals-against average, 29-9-0-3 record, .905 save percentage and four shutouts.
"That just means that the team's been playing very well in front of me," said Fucale. "We've been playing a very good defensive game this year. For me and the rest of the team, that's a good sign, because in the playoffs we'll need to be one unit, and I think we're going in the right direction."
Despite his young age, Fucale sits fourth in all-time QMJHL goaltending wins with 106 and is expected to move to third by the end of the season. Fucale has already surpassed NHLer Jean-Sebastien Giguere's previous Halifax franchise records, and became the quickest goaltender to reach 100 victories in the league, accomplishing the feat in 150 games and surpassing Jacques Cloutier's record set three decades ago.
More pertinent to the present, Fucale has posted two shutouts in his past six games.
"I think I've been having good performances lately for my team and that's good," he said. "I just want to be as ready as I can for the playoffs."
Heading into Friday's game at Acadie-Bathurst, the Mooseheads sit third overall in the league with a 39-18-0-3 record. Halifax has won five consecutive games with Fucale in goal for four of them.
Thanks in large part to Fucale and snipers Jonathan Drouin (84 points) and Nikolaj Ehlers (83 points), the Mooseheads continue to thrive despite significant off-season changes, including the departure of 2013 first overall NHL draft choice Nathan MacKinnon to the Colorado Avalanche.
"It's certainly different," said Fucale. "This year, we're much younger. But we all know last year we had a very strong team. This year is different. We still have a lot of talent and a lot of leadership. We have to make sure we play well together and push in the right direction.
"We're on the right track. We have progressed a lot. We've gotten much better. Guys are maturing, getting better, getting stronger and, as a team, it's positive to see."
Fucale prepares himself through a constant self-improvement effort that includes the usual hard work and desire to get better in every practice. He also reviews goaltenders in solo video highlights and games, ranging from junior to Europe to the NHL.
"I don't try to copy anyone in the NHL," he said. "I just take little parts of everyone's game that work well. I could take a little part of (Henrik) Lundqvist's game, (Carey) Price's game, (Jonathan) Quick. Everyone in the NHL has something that they do extremely well. For me, as a young goalie, it's good for me to watch and learn from professionals. I can take out whatever I can from their game and insert it into mine."
Zucale also strives to make sure that he is mentally prepared by keeping up to date with trends in sports psychology.
"I read many books about that aspect," he said. "The mental side of the game is mostly with your goalie coach. It's important to have a good relationship with your goalie coach and make sure that you're on the same page and you can learn from him, since he's got experience. Eric Raymond, my goalie coach this year and the last two or three years, has been helping me a lot on the mental side as well as the physical. Eric has been helping me just to stay focused and stay consistent, and those are the keys in order to make it as a pro."
Fucale, who signed with the Canadiens last fall, has had contact with members of Montreal's hockey operations staff through post-game visits and phone calls. The Canadiens have the option of promoting him to the AHL or ECHL after this season.
In the meantime, he is drawing inspiration from the performance that Price delivered while backstopping Canada to a repeat Olympic gold medal in Sochi.
"It was great," said Fucale. "Everyone saw that he played amazing and it's pretty remarkable to have a great tournament. He did what he could in the net and Team Canada played an awesome tournament. The whole team, we were all watching every game. Obviously, all of Canada is very happy and proud of that gold medal."
With Price locked in as Montreal's starter for the foreseeable future, Fucale knows that it could take him a while to get to the NHL. But he is willing to bide his time as he strives for continuous improvement.
"We'll have a lot of time to talk about it when it comes," he said. "But, right now, I've still got a lot of work to do."