TORONTO — Sixty-four seconds into the game, Logan Couture finds Timo Meier between the hash marks, who one-times the first shot of game and first faced by Michael DiPietro in the NHL into the back of the net.
Two minutes and 18 seconds later, Evander Kane lofts a shoulder-high backhand toward the cage that Ben Hutton tries to glove and accidentally tips past DiPietro.
Then at 8:48, Melker Karlsson redirects a point shot from Brent Burns near the crease through DiPietro.
That was just the first ten minutes of the first period.
It was not the NHL debut DiPietro had imagined, but it may have been for the best.
The 2017 third-round pick (64th overall) was initially summoned on an emergency call-up from the OHL after backup Thatcher Demko sprained his knee, but was forced into action after starter Jacob Markstrom had to sit out with a lower-body injury and the team’s other depth options fell through.
DiPietro said the experience gave him a harsh dose of reality, which has motivated him to get off to a stunning start to his first pro season with the AHL’s Utica Comets.
“That’s a tough game. When you’re dreaming about playing in the NHL as a little kid, especially as a goaltender, you’re dreaming about that 50-save shutout your first game and stuff like that, and obviously that didn’t happen,” he said Saturday after beating the Toronto Marlies 4-3.
“But that was probably the best thing for me, looking back on it, because it really opened up my eyes to what the pro game’s about, and I owe not just the players, but the coaching staff with how understanding they were and making sure that I continue to grow my game. So it’s been a long eight months, but I think it’s been pretty good.”
“Pretty good” might be an understatement.
The now 20-year-old boasts a 7-3-1 record with a sterling 2.22 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in the AHL, both tops among rookie netminders and good for sixth and eighth overall in their respective categories.
But when it came to his NHL debut last season, DiPietro said he felt a wave of anxiety before the game despite being in the midst of another solid season in junior.
“It was after the morning skate and I was just stretching in the gym, and right before I hopped in the shower the goalie coach came in he was like, ‘Yeah, you’re playing tonight,’ I’m like ‘Oh,’” recalled DiPietro, a Memorial Cup winner in 2017 and the 2017-18 OHL goalie of the year.
“Like the heart sinks and then you start worrying and everything, and safe to say I didn’t really sleep much that afternoon that’s for sure.”
DiPietro said he used the nightmare debut to push himself to get better over the summer and to work toward making it back to the NHL.
In particular, he said it made him realize how much he needed to improve his cardio and that as a goaltender he can’t just track the puck in the defensive zone, but he needs to be watchful over every play.
Canucks forward Antoine Roussel witnessed DiPietro’s mauling at the hands of the Sharks firsthand, and said it may have been “the best thing that happened to him.” He’s been struck by the youngster’s new approach to the game.
“The way he carries himself: he’s first at the rink, first on the ice and he’s almost the last guy to leave every time. He’s just for 20 years old, so professional and that attitude will carry him a long way, so I’m very impressed. I can’t wait for him to develop and get more games, you need to play and that’s what he’s doing, and since I’ve been here, he’s freaking 2-0,” said Roussel, who was with the Comets on a conditioning stint.
“…But the way he works, the sky is limit.”
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As DiPietro shines in the AHL, Demko, 23, and Markstrom, 29, have tended the twine with success for an upstart Canucks (13-10-4) club packed with potential, giving the team enviable depth at the position.
And DiPietro remains content plying his trade with the Comets.
“I’m 20 years old and I just want to continue to get better as a goaltender, get experience, get games and play,” he said.
“My goal is playing in the NHL, whenever that day comes will be a great day, but I’m not looking too far ahead.”
Markstrom’s three-year, $11-million deal with the Canucks is set to expire in the off-season and there could be some games up for grabs in Vancouver next year.
While DiPietro knows he’d better prepared for his next NHL start, he’s in no rush to make it happen again, yet.
“My comfort level and knowing what to expect will be a whole lot different (than) what happened my first game. I guess I’m immersed in the pro game now, so I kind of know roughly what to expect — but I think I’m ready whenever called upon,” he said.
“But that being said, I want to focus on my time here, focus on honing my skills and making sure I’m doing the right things each and every day to make me a successful pro for a very long time.”
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