If you're shooting for the top, sometimes it helps to start there. That's why goalie Brad Thiessen
found himself taking the Stanley Cup from Sidney Crosby
last spring and skating it around Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Thiessen was a "black ace" called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of the season to practice with the Pittsburgh. The Penguins let the extras take the ice for their championship celebration after topping the Red Wings, so somehow Thiessen, a few weeks removed from playing at Northeastern, managed to hoist the Cup without his feet ever touching the ground.
"It's kind of hard to put into words," Thiessen said last week. "It was all a blur. You go home, look at pictures, see what happened. It was real."
The thing about reality is that it can take different forms, and many of them lack the glory of a Stanley Cup waltz. Like finding yourself an unproven AHL goalie sent down to the ECHL to rediscover your confidence and game, the way Thiessen was earlier this season.
"It definitely wasn't easy," Thiessen said. "It wasn't what you want to hear at that time. It took me a while to get over that, a week or two."
"He was able to see just how difficult it is to have success at the highest level of hockey. To his credit, he took that experience and went to work." -- Todd Reirden, on goalie Brad Thiessen
Right now, the truest snapshot of Thiessen, 24, lies between those two extremes. And that's plenty good enough for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He's found his footing when it's mattered the most, emerging as one of the better rookie netminders in the AHL the past two months.
In February, he went 4-2-1 with a 1.68 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. Last month, he was 6-3 with a 2.08 GAA and .929 save percentage. The Penguins have needed every minute of that improving play in goal as they picked themselves up to earn a playoff spot in the East Division.
"He's been a large part of how our season has turned around," Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Todd Reirden
said. "We had a plan going into the season for Brad as far as his development. It involved going down to the ECHL so he could play games. That (his improvement) is a credit to him, and believing in the plan we had for him."
Thiessen has a lot of familiarity with the areas of faith and saves, some of which are bigger than the ones that win championships. One of his brothers, Scott, works with children in a Brooklyn ministry. Another brother, Craig, is a pastor in Aldergrove, B.C. The siblings grew up working on the family's 300,000-bird turkey and chicken farm in Aldergrove.
"Having to work to pay for your own (hockey) stuff gives you a little sense of accomplishment," he said.
Thiessen continued to earn his keep at Northeastern, capping three improving seasons by going 25-12-4 with a 2.12 GAA and .931 save percentage as a junior last year. He left early to sign a free-agent deal with the Penguins, and when it became apparent he wasn't going to get any minutes with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of the season, the organization let him practice up top.
Thiessen eyed Marc-Andre Fleury
, watching how he carried himself and shrugged off criticism and bad games to bounce back under pressure.
"Just to be mentally tough like that, not to worry what anybody else is thinking, you know yourself what you need to do," Thiessen said. "He's just real calm, real care-free at the rink."
Reirden said Thiessen's field trip to Pittsburgh was a valuable motivator.
"He was able to see just how difficult it is to have success at the highest level of hockey," Reirden said. "To his credit, he took that experience and went to work."
But Thiessen's results were slow in coming when his own pro career finally began. He played just four games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton through November, and in early December Thiessen was the one heading the wrong way when he and Adam Berkhoel
toggled between the Penguins and Wheeling.
"It was going down there to get a chance to work on my game," Thiessen said. "I played more, got into the rhythm of playing every night."
Thiessen came back to the AHL in mid-January, yet still had to grope his way through another abyss before sorting things out. In his six contests that month, he went 1-4 with a 4.20 GAA and .859 save percentage for a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team that looked like an also-ran.
But just as quickly as a light switch going on, Thiessen and the Penguins started coming up with the right answers.
"I was frustrated a little bit, tired of not winning," he said. "I took it upon myself to make sure I was working as hard as I could in practice, watching video, putting things together. I think I've just been confident and believing I can play here. Battling -- that's the big key for me."
The parent Penguins made sure Thiessen realized the importance of that spark before he said his goodbyes for the summer. Thiessen said the players joked with him, stating that keeping company with the Stanley Cup takes a lot more than just showing up for a few postseason workouts.
The caveats weren't necessary. Thiessen is smart enough to understand the difference between watching and winning. The stakes are much different for Thiessen in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton now, but then again, so is his investment in whatever might happen the next few weeks.
"I've seen them (Pittsburgh) at the top. But it wasn't for myself. It wasn't my team," he said. "This is where I am right now. We're trying to win a championship as a team. Hopefully, going through these two months together will be fun."