SITM OHL/Flint Firebirds
By Adam Biggers
Defense and goaltending.
Those will be the hallmarks of Flint Firebirds hockey, says coach John Gruden.
And the Ontario Hockey League’s newest franchise has plenty of both.
However, and conveniently enough, the Firebirds are stacked at goalie—they have three starting-caliber talents ready to go at any given time. Gruden doesn’t like assigning depth-chart orders to players—especially after just a few games—but he’s certainly aware of his resources.
Alex Nedeljkovic, who is “one of the best goaltenders in the OHL,” Kyle Keyser and Zack Bowman—who has started in each of the Firebirds (2-1-0-0) past three games—make up one of the strongest trios in the OHL.
Bowman has been particularly steady.
Despite giving up three quick goals during Wednesday night’s 5-2 road loss to the Owen Sound Attack, he made strong impressions by notching two wins over the rival Saginaw Spirit.
This past Thursday, he posted 24 saves in a 3-0 victory in Saginaw. During Round 2, he stopped 32 shots in a 3-2 shootout victory in Flint.
Because of those efforts, he was named as the CHL’s Goalie of the Week.
“We have three really good goalies,” Gruden said. “And all Zack is doing, he’s proving that he’s taking full advantage of his opportunity and playing very well. That’s what players need to do in this league to make themselves… they want to be a No. 1, they need to play like a No. 1.”
Snagging a pair of impressive wins was a nice way to start the season for Bowman, who credited his defensemen after downing the Spirit on Saturday night. Simply said, Flint has a system in place that allows goalies to get comfortable.
There is no special prep for a rival. No added pressure for goalies, either.
They trust in the process, and the results speak for themselves.
“The way we play defense and take away time and space makes it a lot easier for (Bowman/goalies) to see the puck,” Gruden said. “You know, that’s the way we want to play. We want to be known as a team that’s in your face and makes it difficult for the opposition.
I think for a goalie, you know, he had 24 saves the first night. Which I think, average-wise, that’s not that much. But you know what, at the end of the day, he’s going to be relied upon to make the saves that he did. In Saginaw, getting one shutout against our rivalry team is great, but it doesn’t change the way we play—regardless of who we’re playing against.”
Bowman is an aggressive competitor. So are Nedeljkovic and Keyser. They wouldn’t be in the OHL if they weren’t. That competitive fuel breeds continuous “battles” in practice.
There will always be a hungry backup. Always.
“I think, we all just want to play, I guess you could say,” Bowman said. “We’re going to play to the best of our abilities. We have to compete with each other to get in the net, and we’re going to do it. We’re all friends off the ice, but when it comes down to business… you know.
We all want to play in net, and we all want to play at the highest level possible. We’re all going to compete to get to that level.”
Goalie coach Stan Matwijiw has helped Bowman bring out the best of his glove, blocker, pads and paddle—and he’s done so since Bowman entered the league.
“He pushes me pretty hard,” said Bowman. “I’ve been with him for the past two years (Plymouth Whalers), now I’m in my third. I think he’s a great guy and a great goalie coach. He’s definitely taught me a lot and helped along the way.”
Just like in football, position coaches spend hours upon hours with their athletes. Building a strong relationship is a must, and Bowman trusts Matwijiw’s direction.
“I’m sure Tom Brady didn’t get to where he is on his own,” Bowman said, laughing. “The goalie coach is very important to a goalie—he tells you what you’re doing wrong, what you’re doing right. He keeps me positive, keeps me in the right mindset before games. Stan does that for me.”
Having three clear-and-present starters is better than having none at all. Gruden’s not complaining one bit. Paired with blue-liners such as Mathieu Henderson, Tyler Sensky and Vili Saarijarvi , the Firebirds goalies appear to be in good position to push for contention in the OHL West.
Bowman has the potential to lead the way for Flint, which returns to the Dort Federal Event Center on Oct. 10 to host the Sarnia Sting (7:05 p.m.)
“He definitely makes our team better--just like we expect the other goaltenders to do,” Gruden said. “We’ve got great goaltending and great defensemen. That gives you a chance—those two things alone. We’re very excited about our goaltending situation, just like I’m very excited about our defensemen. “
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