In Brust they trust

by Michael Sharp || AHL On The Beat Archive

The hottest bit of Binghamton Senators merchandise features the face of a player who, just this past summer, was drawing little interest from hockey’s higher levels.

Requests are now rolling in from Houston and Manchester, even Ottawa, for this particular T-shirt, which cleverly lauds a player whose rundown of recent injuries seems to skip like a scratched CD: broken right foot, broken right foot, broken right foot, and finally last March, season-ending surgery.

The white shirt routinely sells out on game nights at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena, a growing testament to the four words splashed across the front: “In Brust We Trust.”

Indeed, with a team-record 11 straight wins and an AHL-leading six shutouts, 27-year-old goaltender Barry Brust has clawed all the way back from a broken right foot that just wouldn’t heal, sparking a furious February for the short-handed Senators and giving new hope to a playoff-starved city.

“We’ve been playing really well lately, and he’s been playing unbelievable as well,” said Derek Smith, a fourth-year defenseman on a Binghamton team that entered Sunday’s action with points in 11 consecutive games (9-0-1-1) to grab sole possession of fourth place in the East Division.

“If we’re going to keep staying hot and keep making this push to the playoffs, he’s definitely going to be a big part of it. And we’re definitely going to need him every night that he gets the call.”

All told, Brust ranks fifth in the league in save percentage (.927) and third in wins (23). His 1,144 total saves lead the AHL, and his current run of 11 straight wins has blown past the franchise’s previous mark of seven, which was set by both Billy Thompson and Ray Emery during the 2004-05 season.

Over those 11 victories, the first of which came Jan. 7, Brust has compiled a 1.99 goals-against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts. On Wednesday night, he stopped 47 of 48 shots – including all 24 he faced in the third period – to help the B-Sens down the league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

“I would just say that he’s been the one guy that has had timely saves for us,” Binghamton coach Kurt Kleinendorst said. “And it’s so important for a team because at any level there will be breakdowns. And there’s saves, and then there’s big saves, and then there’s timely saves. They’ve got to make all the saves that they should. They’ve got to make probably four or five big saves every night. And then they probably have to make another three or four saves every night that maybe they shouldn’t. And I think Barry’s done that.

“And I think our team feels that. We play with a lot of confidence when Barry’s in the net. … He’s a little bit unorthodox, but what you notice with Barry is how he battles. He’ll fight to make a save. He’s never going to give in to a shooter or a shot or anything. I mean, he fights, he battles.”

And in many ways, it’s been a fight just to get here.

On Jan. 26, 2009, Brust was on the ice in Worcester, representing the Houston Aeros at the AHL All-Star Classic. But a month later, while making a relief appearance in a 6-1 loss to Rockford, he fell awkwardly on his right foot, turning what had been a stress fracture into a full fracture.

“The doctors kept telling me, ‘You’ll be fine in three weeks,’ and I’d come back in three weeks and re-break it,” said Brust, who estimates he injured his foot at least twice more after the Rockford loss.

“And then the doctor said, yeah, you should be fine to come back after summer, and everything should be healed up. Well, I came back to camp the next year and … the same bone was still broken.”

Brust waited until mid-November of 2009 before returning to action with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades. But even then, the bone hadn’t healed properly, leaving him with a choice: Either play through the pain or have surgery.

He opted to play, logging 16 games with Florida and 15 more with Houston before the injury began affecting another bone in his foot. He ultimately shut things down in February and underwent season-ending surgery in March, thus making for a long, slow summer.

“I wasn’t really allowed to do anything, so I just had to make sure that I watched what I ate,” said Brust, who passed the time by hanging out with family and friends, and helping his parents with a move.

“I tried to help them out as much as I could on one foot and in a cast and stuff.”

As he recovered, Brust admittedly didn’t have a ton of options for the coming season. But when Binghamton’s ECHL affiliate in Elmira hired former Everblades coach Malcolm Cameron, Brust suddenly had an advocate within the Senators organization.

The Cameron connection helped bring him to Binghamton, where any notion that he’d be a No. 3 goalie was quickly tossed aside when Mike Brodeur went down with a head injury on opening night. That, coupled with rookie Robin Lehner’s recall to Ottawa, opened the door.

“It’s nice to be back on the ice,” said Brust, who wasn’t able to skate until a week before training camp. “The last couple years have been filled with injuries. I mean, it’s just nice to be going out there every day and (playing). And when you play a lot, and you play often, which I’ve had the opportunity to do here this year, things kind of take care of themselves. And you kind of get into a roll and play well.

“Not just that, but the fact that I knew I was going to be in there every night early on in the season when we were hit by injuries and call-ups — you don’t worry about the little mistakes that you make, and you just kind of roll with it. And I was fortunate to have that opportunity, and it’s been a really fun year for me, with all the things that have gone on in the last couple years.”

As for this current winning streak?

“To be honest, I don’t think it’s anything really that I’ve done,” Brust said. “It’s more in the way our team has started to play, and pretty much buy into what the coach is selling. … I think we really committed to blocking shots recently, and it’s obviously made my job a lot easier. And we haven’t really given up very many high-quality scoring chances, and that’s been the key pretty much since Christmas (to) the success that we’ve had.”

A native of Swan River, Man., with three older sisters and a big love for baseball – particularly his Toronto Blue Jays – Brust guesses it was the equipment that drew him to the goaltending position at a young age.

In 2002, the Minnesota Wild grabbed him with a third-round pick, and his career hit a peak during the 2006-07 campaign, when he spent 11 games with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. There, he posted a 2-4-1 record, a 3.70 goals-against average and an .878 save percentage. He won his first NHL start on the road in San Jose, a victory that featured a point-blank, pads-stacked, glove save on Joe Pavelski.

That time with L.A. stemmed from an unusual situation, Brust pointed out, as the Kings didn’t want to expose his Manchester teammate Jason LaBarbera to waivers, so they recalled him instead. Asked what he took from the experience, he said: “Just kind of take the good with the bad, kind of stay even-keel. Those guys don’t get too fired up … good or bad, and I think I tried to take a little bit of that with me.”

Four years later, Brust acknowledges he’s become a much different player over the course of his career, that he’s grown stronger mentally and learned more about the position from goalie coach after goalie coach.

“I like to think that I have a good mind for the game and can read the play well,” he said, “and that’s probably (what) my game is based on.”

Smith also noted the seventh-year pro brings a vocal presence to the Binghamton zone, not to mention standout skills with the puck: “He makes breakout passes that I’m sure some defensemen in this league can’t make.”

And off the ice, Kleinendorst said his flannel shirts are a perfect reflection of his laid-back, go-about-his-business style.

“He’s probably one of the most laid-back guys I’ve ever met,” Smith said. “It’s unbelievable. He’s just so calm, cool. Not much really gets under his skin.”

Laid-back, yes, but no less of a fighter on the ice, where Brust has battled back from a maddening injury and helped push this Binghamton team firmly into the mix for its first playoff berth in six years.

“The fans here deserve it,” he said, looking ahead to the possibility of postseason action. “They’re great fans. They’re very loud. And I think it’s something everybody wants. It’s what you strive for at the beginning of the year, and honestly, it’s the funnest time to play hockey.”