High-pressure hockey nothing new for Garand

Photo: Calvin Spohn

📝 by Patrick Williams

Let’s make something clear.

Hartford Wolf Pack goaltender Dylan Garand is a rookie, but high-pressure hockey is not new to him.

After all, this is a 20-year-old who already has conquered one of hockey’s biggest stages. Representing Canada in net? At the IIHF World Junior Championship? And on Canadian ice? No problem. Garand backstopped Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2022 event in Edmonton, where he went 6-0-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.

Or we could go back a couple of months to the 2022 Western Hockey League postseason, when Garand led the Kamloops Blazers to the conference finals with a 1.92 GAA and a .933 save percentage in 17 starts after earning top goaltender honors in the regular season for the entire Canadian Hockey League.

So when the New York Rangers recalled Louis Domingue on the final weekend of the regular season, Garand had plenty to reach back to as preparation for this next test, this time as a pro.

“When I was with Team Canada,” Garand said, “I had so much pressure on me. I was worried about every little thing and what people thought of me, what the outcomes were going to be, and all these sorts of things. The biggest thing is just don’t think about it at all. Just focus on your process and what you need to do to be successful, and if you do that and you invest in the process, then the outcome will take care of itself.”

With Domingue off to New York, the Wolf Pack net became Garand’s to open the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“When I heard that was going to happen,” Garand recounted, “it was a really good chance for me to prove to not only the other guys but also myself that I could do it. I know I can, and I believe in myself.”

Still, it was the Wolf Pack’s first trip to the postseason since 2015. And the Rangers had made several moves at the trade deadline to reshape the Hartford roster and expected the Wolf Pack to justify that faith with a strong playoff performance. Simply getting into the Calder Cup Playoffs, making a brief appearance, and going home would not be acceptable.

“Our goal is to win a Calder Cup,” Rangers assistant general manager and Wolf Pack general manager Ryan Martin told TheAHL.com in March.

Martin came to the Rangers organization before the 2021-22 season with a mandate to both develop and win after he captured two Calder Cup championships while in management with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Said Garand, “We needed the young guys who are getting a little more opportunity to step up, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Hartford has rolled through Springfield and division champion Providence in the first two rounds. Garand allowed one goal in each game against the Thunderbirds. He gave up one goal total in the first two games vs. the Bruins. And when Providence finally managed to dent him for four goals in Game 3, Garand came back with another shutout to close out the series last Friday, leaving the Bruins staggered and trying to figure out what had happened to their season.

Six games into this burgeoning Wolf Pack run, Garand has gone 5-1 while his two shutouts, 1.17 GAA, and .954 all top the AHL goaltending charts. Now comes the question of what Garand’s next encore can be. The answer to that question will begin to unfold this week as the Wolf Pack travel to Hershey for the first two games of the best-of-five Atlantic Division finals.

The Rangers ended up exiting the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a first-round loss to New Jersey last week. Now Domingue is back, along with captain Jonny Brodzinski, forward Jake Leschyshyn and defenseman Libor Hajek.

But it’s still Garand’s net.

Perhaps Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch could have turned to Domingue after the Game 3 loss to Providence. Domingue, after all, is a proven veteran whose 45 regular-season appearances ranked him fourth among AHL goaltenders. With his team fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch, Knoblauch only turned to Garand four times in a 13-game stretch between March 15 and April 14.

But Knoblauch wanted Garand to continue the playoff success that had first developed against Springfield, and another chance to end a series certainly qualified as a test.

“We lose our starting goalie who had the majority of the starts,” Knoblauch said before the Providence series. “That was a hole for us, but the way Dylan stepped up and played [against Springfield], that was huge for our team.”

Knoblauch stuck with his rookie netminder to close out the P-Bruins, and that move panned out. But it has not been all success for Garand this season. Like many rookie goaltenders, the AHL put the 2020 fourth-round pick through six months of ups and downs. In all, he played 32 games and finished 13-14-3 with a 3.01 GAA and an .894 save percentage. Plenty of discussions ensued with Wolf Pack goaltending coach Jeff Malcolm as Garand navigated the AHL.

For one, Garand no longer had a number-one job like he had had in junior.

“In your first year it’s huge to have a guy like that,” Garand said of Malcolm. “I think for me the biggest adjustment coming into my first year has just been the mental challenges and things like that. He’s been there to help me with that and give me advice. I think I’ve really grown in that aspect.

“By human nature you feel at the bottom just by age. You’ve got to try to find your way, and sometimes you struggle rather than just being in control of yourself and control of your own game. I think the number-one thing I’ve learned is that with pro hockey, things change so much. Guys come up and down, your role changes, but the biggest thing is that you’ve just got to control what you can control and focus on the process. Then everything else takes care of itself.”

This is not the same Wolf Pack team that wandered through the first four-plus months of the regular season. The Rangers brought in the likes of Anton Blidh, Will Lockwood, Adam Clendening and Wyatt Kalynuk. Leschyshyn arrived on assignment from the Rangers at the trade deadline and contributed immediately.

“I think it’s been great to have them,” Garand said of that late-season makeover. “I think right away you could tell there was just a change in mood and changing the culture a little bit, just a little more positive. We’ve found what works for us.”

The Wolf Pack will go to Hershey having won 13 of their past 15 games going back to March 26. This postseason run is promising, but it’s still early, and the Bears will present yet another difficult challenge.

Garand has his confidence and his process in place now, however.

“Every game day’s basically the exact same thing that I do,” Garand said. “The way I play the game is [to] repeat little mental notes that I go over and over to keep myself in the moment, phrases that keep me focused on what I need to do.

“That’s my process.”