NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Carolina Hurricanes. Blackhawks-Hurricanes stream coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
One of the keys to the Hurricanes’ success this season has been the strength of their goaltending. Between Alex Nedeljkovic, Petr Mrazek, and James Reimer, the trio have helped Carolina to the NHL’s second-best 5-on-5 save percentage (.934, per Natural Stat Trick).
Nedeljkovic has been a nice surprise to come out of Mrazek’s extended absence due to injury. The 25-year-old goaltender had only appeared in six NHL games since being drafted No. 37 overall in 2014. He’s spent time in the ECHL and AHL during his journey, but when the door opened in early February, the Parma, Ohio native has taken advantage.
After helping the Canes’ AHL affiliate in Charlotte to the 2019 Calder Cup title, Nedeljkovic is now assisting Carolina to owning the league’s best points percentage (.742) through 33 games. He’s made 12 starts, helped his team to eight wins, has two shutouts, and a .937 even strength save percentage.
The two shutouts were sweet in their own separate ways. The first came against their Central Division rivals in the Lightning. The second came in his home state of Ohio against the Blue Jackets, with the added bonus of getting to see some friends and family afterward.
[BLACKHAWKS-HURRICANES COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]
The transition from a life in the minors to regular time in the NHL could not have gone better so far.
“It’s been pretty smooth this year,” Nedeljkovic told NBC Sports last week. “Those first few games were maybe a little rusty. You can throw that up to maybe not playing a game in a year. … It’s easy when you’ve got the group of guys that we have here in front of you. It’s fun. We’re doing really well right now. We’ve got high expectations amongst ourselves and it’s going to be an exciting finish to the season.”
We chatted with Nedeljkovic about his recent run of form, his journey to the NHL, and keys for goalies when attempting to score a goal.
Q. When you’re on this kind of run, does the game seem to slow down?
NEDELJKOVIC: “Yeah, absolutely. It’s a completely different game than in the minors. Guys are smart, so you don’t see too many major, major breakdowns. Pucks take a bad bounce here and there, and mistakes happen, but for the most part guys are in the right spot. Even if there is a little bit of a breakdown, there’s always somebody there to back someone up and to help bail them out.”
Q. You’ve had quite a journey to get to this point. Seven years after being drafted you’re getting a regular, deserved run in the NHL. What kept you focused and motivated as you were down in the A and the ECHL for a bit?
NEDELJKOVIC: “I think it’s just just hoping that opportunity would come and understanding that I’m playing a game for a living right now. That’s not going to last forever, so might as well try to make the most of it at whatever level that is. There’s a lot of guys that spend their whole career playing in the American [Hockey] League or overseas that never get to live their dream playing in the NHL and have long careers in the NHL. But, in saying that, to have a long career playing professional hockey, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. That’s something that not a lot of people can say that they do.
“Like I said, at the end of the day it’s a game, so the longest that I can ride it out and play and play at a high level, I’m going to do that and try to enjoy it as much as I can.”
Q. Knowing goaltending coach Paul Schonfelder since your time with Charlotte, what are some of the techniques he’s used that have improved our game?
NEDELJKOVIC: “I don’t think there’s been too many things technically that Paul came in and we switched around. The biggest thing with Paul has been the consistency and pointing things out and focusing on things that we’re letting slip a little bit, like whether it be rebound control or getting an extra few inches or getting some good depth or my angles are off or post play is no good. We’ve kind of been through it all it seems like. Just having him around and him consistently wanting to help me get better and wanting to watch me improve. He’s invested in me and you can’t ask for much more than that out of a coach or anybody.”
Q. What are you picking up from Petr and James being around them on a daily basis?
NEDELJKOVIC: “The biggest thing is the consistency in which they do things. Everybody’s got their own routine, everybody’s different in a certain way. But what works for you, that’s what’s gotten everybody to this point and it’s what made them successful. The only reason they’ve been successful and gotten here is because they’ve done it every single day. It’s not something you can turn on and turn off and expect the same results. You have to be committed to doing the things that make you successful no matter how long or boring they may get sometimes. That’s what you have to do. As an athlete that’s our job, is to make sure that we’re ready to go every day.”
🚨GOALIE GOAL ALERT🚨 pic.twitter.com/SXspUUqywb
— American Hockey League (@TheAHL) March 11, 2018
Q. You’ve scored goals in the ECHL and AHL, and almost had a third. Have you had any opportunities to take a shot in the NHL yet, or come close?
NEDELJKOVIC: “Nope. Haven’t had one shot yet. It’s been kind of disappointing because we’ve had some opportunities in some games here where they’ve had the goalie pulled. But guys at this level are smart. You don’t want to give up possession of the puck. When you have it, it’s tough to get it back. Guys really aren’t that eager to give it away, especially now when teams are starting to realize how much I play the puck. They’re not overly eager to just go and dump it in or shoot it on me knowing that I’m probably going to move it. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully I’ll get plenty of chances to do it because it was awesome to do it the first two times.”
Q. Does that enter your mind when you see a team empty their net? Are you thinking, OK, net’s empty, if I get time and get the puck cleanly I’ll take my shot?
NEDELJKOVIC: “Yeah, probably creeps in a little earlier than that, honestly. I’ve caught myself a few times after we score a goal in the first period and we’re up 1-0 or 2-0, I’m like ‘All right, tonight’s the night, I’m going to score.’ We still have to play two more periods. Sometimes I get a little carried away, a little excited about it.
“It creeps in, but at the end of the day I’m trying to make the right play and you can’t force it. Those two times that I scored — one in Florida, they dumped it in from the red line, there was no pressure. It was all in one motion: in my glove, on the ice, and down the ice it went. The second time, as well, it was a soft dump from center ice. Really, there was no pressure at all. I was out above the goal line, too, again, so I didn’t have to do a lot of moving around and manuevering to set it up right. It was just kind of stop the puck and shoot it back down.
“Like I said, you can’t force that, especially in a tight game where if they’re pulling their goalie, they’re probably only within one or two goals. One mistake could cost you.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.