Reading Royals

The ultimate EBUG: Nick Niedert stole the show in surprise ECHL start

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The timing couldn’t have been worse. Nick Niedert’s phone rang on Friday afternoon and on the other end was the ECHL’s Reading Royals in need of an emergency goaltender after Austin Lotz was called up to AHL Lehigh Valley.

Niedert, who lives in Connecticut, quickly mapped out the trek in his head. A typical three-to-four hour drive to Reading, Pennsylvania would have taken him much longer on Black Friday when you factor in all the traffic he would likely experience. It was clearly a no-go.

But the Royals’ goaltending situation was in such flux that Niedert, 36, was still planning to be the team’s emergency backup for their Saturday night game in Glens Falls, New York against the Adirondack Thunder. As he was driving to the game his phone rang once again around 3 p.m. Reading’s assistant coach Mike Marcou was calling from the coaches office at Cool Insuring Arena and was kind of dancing around the reason for dialing. Eventually, Niedert asked what was going on.

“Well, you’re going tonight,” Marcou told him.

“Going where?” Niedert replied before it finally hit him after a beat. “Oh s—-. Alright. Let’s go.”

“You ready to go?” Marcou followed up.

Said Niedert: “Does it really matter?”

Royals goaltender Angus Redmond suffered a concussion, so the organization’s depth chart in net was depleted. In stepped Niedert, who went from EBUG to starter in a matter of a few hours. Backing him up was another EBUG that the team was able to grab before game time.

The pressure of the moment didn’t get to Niedert as he watched from his crease his teammates playing their hearts out, galvanized by their current predicament.

“You know what, it’s so cliche, it really is, but let me tell you when I say the guys played their balls off. Those guys… they threw everything out there,” Niedert told Pro Hockey Talk on Sunday. “They were phenomenal.”

A night after losing 8-3 to Adirondack, the Royals rebounded, thanks to Niedert’s 38 saves, for a 2-1 victory. It certainly wasn’t an easy one as the Thunder had six power plays, but couldn’t capitalize.

“The buy-in was absolutely remarkable,” Niedert said. “Honestly, in 15 years I’ve played over 300-something games, that was the most impressive, complete game I’ve ever seen in my career.”

As the final buzzer sounded and the Royals celebrated a victory, you could see how much Niedert’s performance meant to the team. A night earlier they suffered a big loss and then had to hop on a bus for five hours with that defeat still fresh in their minds. Factor in their goaltending situation and it wasn’t an easy lead up to Saturday’s rematch.

For Niedert, who’s gotten used to watching games from the bench as a legendary minor league EBUG, it was a satisfying experience considering it had been 1,032 days since his last ECHL start.

“When you’re on the team, you’re a part of it,” he said. “But when you’re on the ice contributing, there’s a big difference. It feels a helluva lot better.”

**

That last start in the ECHL with the Royals — Jan. 27, 2016, a 7-5 win over Elmira — left Niedert with a bad taste in his mouth. His wasn’t happy with his performance that night and it stayed with him.

“That was a nightmare. I was so disappointed with the way everything went that day,” he said. “It’s almost like it didn’t count. It was just an unsatisfied feeling.”

That’s why when the buzzer sounded Saturday night and the Royals had sealed a win, it left Niedert in a different place. The reason why he keeps answering the phone whenever teams call is because of what transpired in Glens Falls.

“There’s no better feeling than being on the ice when the horn blows and the win,” he said. “When the rink’s pitch black and you’re leading your team on the ice, there’s nothing like it. There really isn’t.

“To play in a meaningful game in a National Hockey League affiliated league at this age… I’m 5-foot-8 from Iowa. It’s not exactly a hockey hotbed. I’ve been on borrowed time since I was 16 years old when I left home. All the stuff that I went through in my very, very, very extremely long career, it really was worth it [Saturday] night to see what the 17 other guys had to go through to get a win. … When you see guys getting banged up and you see guys getting the ice bags and you see guys fighting through being hurt, guys that are battling through everything, I want to be there for those guys, too.”

Niedert’s never gotten close to the NHL during his long career. Aside from a few AHL tryout contracts and EBUG situations, no invitation has been sent his way for a main training camp in either league. He’s been everywhere, seen everything. He’s been around so long that now former teammates and opponents have become members of opposing coaching staffs.

“It was really worth it. All the things that I went through coming up to [Saturday] night, all that stuff didn’t matter,” he said. “All those week-to-week paychecks, hoping your check doesn’t bounce, playing in front of 150 people some nights, all that was not even relevant. I was happy to do it. I was happy when that damn horn blew, I couldn’t play any longer. It was a helluva night and I’m beyond happy I had the opportunity to do that.”

***

Call up Niedert’s profile page on HockeyDB.com or EliteProspects.com and your mouse will get a decent workout from all the scrolling you’ll have to do. In his 15 years as a professional, the Hudson, Iowa native has played or dressed for 36 teams in 11 different leagues.

Those numbers, however, are unofficial, something that Niedert says may make him one day sit down and sort through game logs for an true tally. He does estimate he’s dressed for somewhere between 700-800 games in his career.

Want an idea of the hectic life Niedert once led when he was a regular dial-a-goalie?

Here’s a sample of one week during the 2011-12 season:

Tuesday: Sent down from ECHL Elmira (NY) to FHL Danbury (CT). Picked up on waivers by ECHL Wheeling (West Va.)

Wednesday: Drive from Danbury back to Elmira for Wheeling road game. After pre-game skate, informed he was called up to AHL Bridgeport (CT). Drove back to Danbury for Thursday practice with Bridgeport.

Thursday: Practice with Bridgeport. Drive to Albany (NY) for game.

Friday: Play in Albany. Get sent back down to Wheeling, who were playing in Cincinnati (OH) on Saturday night.

Saturday: Travel to Cincinnati. Serve as EBUG.

Sunday: Play game. Travel back to Danbury.

That emotional roller coaster led Niedert to ask himself if it was really worth it to continue. But again, the phone kept ringing and he kept answering and grabbing his pads.

The ups and downs he’s experienced during a life in the minors has taught Niedert about resiliency and battling adversity, qualities needed in order to last as long as he has in the game.

***

The thought of retiring has crossed Niedert’s mind before, sometimes on those long car rides home. And while he’s worked as a manager at the Brookfield, Connecticut Wesco Sports Center since 2010, he keeps answering the phone when teams call, knowing his has very understanding co-workers.

The phone keeps ringing because his reputation follows him at every single stop. Coaches know what they’re going to get. No matter how long he sticks with a team, he’s never going to change. He’ll support his teammates. He’ll stick tap a player who dropped to block a shot. He’ll be positive. He’ll show up early and be the last one off the ice. 

There was a time when goalies of Niedert’s size were all the rage: small and quick. Now, bigger goalies are much more athletic and have become the norm around the game.

“All I honestly have is my compete level. My skill set is not even close to these other guys,” he said. “Not even close. I’ll be honest, I’ll tell people that all the time.

“I just work. That’s all. That’s literally all I have in my bag, is just go out, give an effort, don’t be a s——- team guy, and see what happens.”

Down the line, when Niedert finally stops picking up that ringing phone, he’d like to get into coaching — junior hockey, specifically — in order to make an impact on young players’ lives. He doesn’t envision himself as a head coach, but feels more suited in the role of an assistant, that middle-ground guy who can be the liaison between the head coach and players.

He’s back working at Wesco — he put in a full shift on Sunday afternoon after arriving back from Glens Falls — and waiting for his next call. Reading head coach Kirk McDonald told him he’d get in touch if the team needed him again. In the meantime, he plays in a pro/am league once a week to keep sharp and works out regularly in case another EBUG situation pops up.

If he wanted to be like George Costanza he could go out on top, which very well could be the case. That next opportunity could come at any time and he’ll be ready to answer the call, if needed. If it doesn’t, Saturday night’s experience put Niedert at peace.

“If that was it — perfect,” he said.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Maple Leafs get embarrassed as losing streak reaches 5 games

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The Toronto Maple Leafs opened an extremely important six-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Saturday night and turned to 26-year-old rookie goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo to try and snap their current losing streak.

It did not go well for him in his NHL debut as he gave up six goals on 38 shots.

That was the bad news for Toronto. The even worse news for Toronto was that even with those numbers he was by far — BY FAR! — their best player in an ugly 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that extended their losing streak to five games.

With that loss the Maple Leafs are now an extremely disappointing 9-9-4 on the season, have just four wins in their past 15 games, and have allowed at least four goals in each of their past four games.

This one might have been the ugliest of the bunch as they were never competitive.

If you wanted to you could try to look for some excuses for such a lackluster effort, and you wouldn’t have to look very far.

They played the night before and had to travel from Toronto to Pittsburgh. They are without two key forwards in Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot. They started a 26-year-old rookie in goal making his NHL debut.

All true. All worth noting. But it takes about a half-second to poke holes in all of them when you consider the Penguins also played on Friday night and had to travel (from New Jersey to Pittsburgh), and were playing without Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist, and were also using their backup goalie (Tristan Jarry) in net.

They still controlled the game from the opening face-off.

When asked how to fix this current mess, coach Mike Babcock went back to the same well he always goes to when things are going poorly and talked about needing to play harder.

“The number one thing is, we have to play harder, and for longer,” said Babcock (via TSN’s Kristen Shilton). And as soon as something goes bad, we can’t stop playing. Push through it. Every one of us in our life, things go bad. Dig in.”

Forget playing harder, they need to play better.

As if the pressure wasn’t already through the roof for this team things are probably about to get a whole lot worse. This is still one of the league’s worst defensive teams and has shown no real improvement in that area. If they do not get elite, All-Star level goaltending the whole thing seems to just collapse around them. In recent years Frederik Andersen was able to give them that level of play in net and mask many of their defensive flaws. This year he has not been able to do that as often, and the unsettled backup situation behind him only makes things worse (they are now 0-5-1 when Andersen does not start).

You have to feel for Kaskisuo on Saturday. He waited years for this moment and was completely abandoned by the team in front of him as the Penguins had players skating wide open throughout the neutral and offensive zones. Odd-man rushes, uncontested forwards driving down the middle of the ice, and chance after chance after chance. The play of Kaskisuo is the only reason the Penguins did not score eight or nine in this one.

At some point the temperature under Babcock’s seat is going to start increasing dramatically, and if this thing does not get turned around soon you have to wonder how much longer management will along things to continue like this. They are now 3-6-0 on the road this season (with their only road wins coming against Columbus, Detroit, and Philadelphia) and play 11 of their next 14 outside of Toronto. Their next three are in Vegas, Arizona and Colorado so things are not going to get any easier this week.

Related: Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering potentially make-or-break stretches

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Seguin, Benn become difference makers as Stars keep rolling

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Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were certainly difference makers on Saturday.

One week after being the focal point of post-game criticism from their coach (which he later apologized for), the Stars’ top duo played a massive role in a come-from-behind 5-4 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday afternoon to continue the team’s recent surge up the Western Conference standings.

Trailing by two goals with 15 minutes to play, Blake Comeau started the rally with his second goal of the season and set the stage for Seguin and Benn to take over later in the game, turning what looked to be a sure loss into two more points in the standings.

Seguin scored the equalizer — his fifth goal of the season — with less than two minutes to play and then set up Benn for the winner just 1:14 into overtime.

“They’re stud players in this league and when they play like that, our team is going to be elite all the time,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery said after the game.

They were both outstanding on Saturday. Seguin finished with three points (one goal, two assists) and now has seven points in his past six games. This was also his second straight multi-point game.

Benn, meanwhile, desperately needed some kind of a break to go his way having entered the day with just a single goal on the season and riding what had been a 15-game goal-scoring drought.

Here is a look at his game-winning goal.

This year’s internal criticism of Seguin and Benn was a little more justified than it was around this time a year ago, but even with their early struggles you still had to believe things were going to turn around for them at some point. Even if their production has started to slide as they get older they are not yet totally washed up and still have the ability to be top line players and take over games like they did on Saturday.

The great news for the Stars is that after starting the season with a 1-7-1 record through nine games they are now on a 10-1-1 run over their past 12 games. And they are doing all of this lately without John Klingberg (their best defenseman) and Roope Hintz (still their leading goal-scorer this season). With the goaltending back on track, the depth players starting to produce (especially big free agent acquisition Joe Pavelski), and now a couple of big games from Seguin there is reason to believe in this team again.

More on the Stars

Seguin, Benn focal point of more internal criticism
Stars coach apologizes for criticism
Ben Bishop is back on track and so are the Stars

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Darcy Kuemper slams Matthew Tkachuk to ice, nearly sparks goalie fight (Video)

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You can add Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper to the lengthy list of players around the NHL that has snapped in the presence of Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

Late in the second period of the Coyotes’ 3-0 win on Saturday afternoon, Kuemper came to the defense of his teammate, defenseman Jason Demers, and slammed Tkachuk to the ice setting off a chaotic line brawl that nearly ended with a goalie fight.

It all started when Demers knocked Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau to the ice away from the play.

Gaudreau responded by skating up behind Demers and cross-checking him in the back, knocking him to the ice. While Demers was down on the ice, Gaudreau and Tkachuk each got in a little extra shot and it was at that point that Kuemper decided to enter the situation.

Once that happened, Flames goalie David Rittich stormed the length of the ice and tried to come to the defense of his teammate. The two goalies never actually fought, but they did both receive their share of penalties. Kuemper was assessed two roughing minors, while Rittich was given a two-minute penalty for leaving the crease to join an altercation.

Kuemper now has 20 penalty minutes since the start of the 2017-18 season which is by far the highest total of any goalie in the league. Rittich (now with 10) is the only other goalie with more than eight.

Tkachuk was also given four minutes for roughing, while Gaudreau received two minutes for cross-checking and Demers was assessed two for roughing.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

As for the actual game itself, it was a huge day for Kuemper as he stopped 38 shots to record the shutout and help the Coyotes improve to 12-7-2 on the season.

It is his second shutout of the season and improved his save percentage to an outstanding .937 in 14 appearances.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Paul Bissonnette to get chance to back up lacrosse boast

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Paul Bissonnette will have a chance to back up his lacrosse boast.

Two days after tweeting that he could make a National Lacrosse League team without having ever played a game, the former NHL player signed a professional tryout Friday with the Vancouver Warriors.

”Bissonnette will be given every opportunity to make the Vancouver Warriors,” Warriors coach Chris Gill said. ”Paul talks a pretty big game. Let’s see if he can back it up and be a part of our team.”

The 34-year-old Bissonnette, now the radio color commentator for the Arizona Coyotes, played 202 NHL games with Pittsburgh and Arizona. He had seven goals, 15 assists and 340 penalty minutes in his six NHL seasons.

He’s gained notoriety more for his outspoken and often humorous tweets commenting on hockey and others sports.

Bissonnette will join the Warriors for their final week of training camp at Rogers Arena on Nov. 22 and 23.