by Ryan Holt || AHL On The Beat Archive
He hovers around 20th league-wide in goals-against average. His save percentage is .908, far from the top of the leaderboard.
Yet Alex Stalock is arguably the most important goaltender to his team of any netminder in the American Hockey League.
The rookie, who played three seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, continues to come up with big save after big save for the first-place Worcester Sharks.
“It’s funny,” joked Worcester head coach Roy Sommer. “His goaltending numbers aren’t all that great, but he makes the big save and the last save when you need it most.”
For Stalock, there is only one stat that counts: wins. In that department, he continues to lead the AHL with 37, seven more than second-place Cory Schneider who has 30 for Manitoba. Last week, Stalock set the all-time AHL record for wins by a rookie in a season, surpassing Corey Hirsch, who previously held the mark with 35 during the 1992-93 season.
“Some goalies are after the individual stats, but I’m after the win,” Stalock said. “I focus on making the key saves, the ones that come at timely points in a game, and never allowing the soft goals. It’s a matter of keeping things simple, letting the game come to me, and making that big save when I’m needed. It’s all just part of being a goalie.”
The South St. Paul, Minn., native is no stranger to playing the majority of his team’s games. He played 76 over two seasons in the USHL with Cedar Rapids and 101 games in three seasons with Minnesota-Duluth.
However, the 56 games he’s played this year are by far the most of any one campaign.
“The schedule is a huge adjustment due to the fact we could play one or two games one week and then turn around and have five games the next week,” remarked Stalock. “In college, you play on the weekends, and maybe once during the week. Things are predictable. One thing I’ve learned this season is how to manage my time off the ice, make sure I’m taking care of my body, and so far I have adjusted pretty well to the long season.”
With Worcester locked into a playoff spot, one would think Sommer might give his rookie some rest down the stretch. However, he’s going to stick with his workhorse in the hopes of giving Stalock a chance to break the 40-win plateau.
Should Stalock get to 40 wins, he’ll become just the second goalie in the last 45 years to accomplish the feat. Ryan Miller is the other.
“We’re going to give him the opportunity,” added Sommer. “I’d like to see him accomplish it. When he puts his mind to it, he can accomplish anything.”
It was evident this past weekend as the Sharks hit the road for a three-game tour of the East Division. In a battle of first-place teams Friday night, Stalock surrendered seven goals, a season high, in a 7-2 defeat to Hershey.
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After a long bus ride to Norfolk following the game, Sommer decided to give the rookie another opportunity to prove himself. Putting the previous night’s game in the rear view mirror, Stalock stopped a career-high 46 shots and shut out the Admirals, 2-0. The 2010 AHL All-Star selection was true to form for the entire 60 minutes.
He did catch his breath, though, as he sat out the final afternoon game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Stalock is a confident and competitive netminder, but could never have anticipated the type of success he and the rest of the Sharks have enjoyed this season.
“I didn’t pencil in 40 wins as a goal of mine when we were getting underway in the off-season,” said the Sharks goalie. “Actually, I was unsure as to how much time I would get this season. It was just a matter of me coming into camp in good physical shape and being ready to go from day one.”
His first season in Worcester has not been a cakewalk. Stalock and the rest of the extremely young Sharks hit a bump in the road in the form of a seven-game losing streak which spanned from Nov. 7-20. Five of those losses were charged to Stalock.
“I just realized it’s not the end of the world,” said Stalock. “In college if you lose that many your season is over, but up here, it was still early in the season basically. It was a little jolt to our collective confidence, but I’m glad we got it out of our system back then. We needed some adversity to fight through together, to see what each other were made of, and it taught us what we needed to do to win games in this league.”
How did the team respond? They went 16-3-0-1 in their next 20 games as they took hold of the Atlantic Division. Stalock was in between the pipes for 15 of the 16 wins during that stretch.
For a rookie goaltender, being in the San Jose system is a perfect fit. In recent years, established NHL goalies such as Evgeni Nabokov, Vesa Toskala and Miikka Kiprusoff all started their careers in San Jose’s system under Sommer. The pipeline is certainly there for a talented goalie like Stalock.
“They (San Jose) tell you when you first arrive here that they’re going to get you to the NHL one way or the other,” Stalock stated. “It’s an unbelievable organization and staff to play for. Roy (Sommer) and Cunny (assistant coach David Cunniff) are fantastic.”
From a hockey perspective, Stalock has evolved tremendously in the few short months here in Worcester. Known in college as an aggressive netminder who could sometimes get into trouble handling the puck, Stalock has learned to temper his game.
“My patience is so much better than when I first got here,” he said. “The players in this league are so smart and so skilled, that you cannot just rely on your athleticism. You must have great technique or they’ll make you pay. It’s about staying patient, preparing well for every game, and combining all the little elements that go into being a good, technical goaltender.”
Stalock credits being in camp with many San Jose veterans as a key turning point in his growth, not just as a hockey player, but as a person.
“Getting to see guys like Patrick Marleau and Rob Blake go about their games is great for a young guy,” Stalock commented. “They have been around the game for so long and have seen it all. To see how they do things is excellent.”
As he gets set to tackle an extraordinary feat and what Worcester hopes is a long playoff run, Stalock cannot help but reflect on this time in his life.
“It’s all a little surreal getting a paycheck for doing what I love to do.”
How far Worcester goes in the Calder Cup playoffs is unclear, but the Sharks can count on Mr. Big Save to be there when they need him most.