Hartford Wolf Pack coach Ken Gernander
kept his promises to goalie Matt Zaba
modest at the beginning of this year.
"We joked with him at the start of the season, 'Gee, we're going to try to get you in a game this season,'" Gernander said.
Zaba chuckled, but as is the case with much humor, it was based on a kernel of truth. He had a frustrating quest for playing time with the Wolf Pack the previous year and his chances behind shiny prospect Miika Wiikman
in 2008-09 didn't look much better.
"I just kind of laughed and thought to myself, if I don't get in a game this year, I don't know what's going to happen," Zaba said.
A few months later, Zaba is grinning a lot, and not just in a nervous, humor-the-coach type of way. The way the rookie has zipped out of nowhere to take command of the position makes Gernander's throwaway line even more ironically humorous.
You want playing time? How about 11 appearances in February alone, a stretch in which Zaba went 8-2, 2.28, .928 to earn AHL goalie of the month honors. He closed the month with his first two shootouts, stopping nine of 10 bids to topple Manchester and Portland. Overall, Zaba is 18-9, 2.36, .921.
"I'm just enjoying playing right now. It's been fun the last couple months, getting the chance," said Zaba, 25. "It's been fun since we've been winning. It makes it a lot easier, a lot more energy at the rink."
That sort of attitude virtually flows out of Zaba these days, in large part because it was bottled up so long.
As recently as Jan. 6-7, Zaba was noticeably sour. That's when the Wolf Pack played at Manitoba, and Zaba's father, Darrell, came down to visit from their hometown of Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Matt didn't play in either game, and Darrell noticed that he was visibly tense.
Darrell told him to relax and focus on what he could control. Namely, the games that were still left on the schedule.
"He told me to forget about the first half of the season and concentrate on the second half," Matt said. "At the start of the season, I was really intense before games. Maybe I got too worked up."
And who could blame him, considering AHL playing time looked as rare as uranium?
In his first pro season, 2007-08, Zaba split time between Idaho and Charlotte of the ECHL. He got a good look in Hartford, alright, but nothing more than that. In the eight games he dressed for the Wolf Pack, he was an unused backup in each and every one.
"It was frustrating at times. I just wanted to make the most of my opportunities, show my team and coaching staff I was a good team player," he said. "I think that's helped me in the long run, having that attitude."
Zaba also consulted Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire, feeling him out about how New York backup Steve Valiquette
copes with sitting behind workhorse Henrik Lundqvist
"He said treat practice like it's a game," Zaba said. "Make sure you work really hard in practice, the focus will carry over to games. At times, it can be frustrating. Those are the times you need to buckle down and stay focused."
Zaba started the season as a distant backup to Wiikman, but competition has always been like a snap shot that he swallows up with his glove. Zaba went to Colorado College even though the school had current Flames goalie Curtis McElhinney
at the time. Zaba quickly elbowed his way into the rotation and earned WCHA All-Rookie Team honors 2003-04.
After his senior season at the school, he signed with the Rangers as free agent, fully aware of Lundqvist's entrenchment up top and the presence of Wiikman and former first-rounder Al Montoya
"There's going to be competition in any organization you're in. That's the nature of pro hockey," Zaba said. "If you look back on different guys' careers, a lot of guys start off in the East Coast League. I thought being in the East Coast League was a chance for me to develop and get more playing time. I think if you play well, things take care of themselves."
"He said treat practice like it's a game. Make sure you work really hard in practice, the focus will carry over to games. At times, it can be frustrating. Those are the times you need to buckle down and stay focused." -- Matt Zaba, on the advice he got from Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire
True enough, if you're willing to be patient. This season started as an immediate improvement over last year for Zaba, as he got the nod in 13 of the team's first 43 games. But Wiikman still looked in control of the position. Then Wiikman went out with an injury and Zaba jumped right into the passing lane. He went 4-2, 1.68, .945 in January before dominating in February. That momentum carried over into this month, as he denied 34 of 35 Worcester shots in a win on March 4. Two nights later, in his ninth straight start, Zaba lost a 1-0 OT decision to Manchester.
"I didn't know what kind of role he would have. It was just kind of give him some games and see what you get, and he's made the most of his opportunities," Gernander said. "The hurdle we wanted him to get past was back-to-back games. We don't want to put too heavy a workload on him. But he's playing so well, we're going to continue to go with him."
With a great appreciation of how hard those chances can be to come by, Zaba is locked in on nothing more than the very next 60-minute audition Gernander sends his way.
"He's playing the guy who's been hot," Zaba said. "At times, it's been Miika. At times it's been me. I don't label myself as the starting goalie, or the backup. I'm just another player who is trying to help the team in any way I can."