Tyson Kozak looked flummoxed on Friday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, astounded to see Kamloops Blazers’ netminder Dylan Ernst holding a puck that should have been in the back of the net.
The down-and-out glove stop on the Winterhawks’ forward is a save-of-the-year candidate, one of 43 pucks turned away in a 4-3 comeback victory and, perhaps more importantly for Ernst, another sign he belongs.
“I feel really pumped about my game right now,” said Ernst, the 17-year-old netminder from Weyburn, Sask. “I feel like I’m going to play my best when Garand leaves and give my team a chance to win those games.”
The U.S. blanked Canada 2-0 in the gold-medal game at the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton.
Garand was Team Canada’s backup goaltender at the tournament and is expected to compete for the starting job this time around, with the 2022 world juniors set to get underway on Boxing Day in Red Deer and Edmonton.
“Honestly, my only goal is winning a gold medal,” said Garand, who boasts a 14-2 record and .935 save percentage this season. “I feel like my first year was kind of eye opening, like, oh my god, I’m on the big stage, with so much attention from the media and you’re worried about your role, stuff like that.
“Hopefully, going back this year, the only thing I’m concerned about and focused on is bringing back a gold medal.”
Hockey Canada has not yet told Garand he will be participating in the under-20 squad’s selection camp for world juniors, but that nod seems a formality on Wednesday and it will spur Ernst into the most important stint of his career to date.
Garand is likely to start against the Vancouver Giants in Kamloops on Dec. 8, his last game before trading blue and orange for the Maple Leaf.
He may not return to the Blazers’ crease until Jan. 7 if Canada reaches the gold-medal game, which is slated for Jan. 5.
Ernst has been waiting for this nine-game window of opportunity, the chance to prove he can be the third consecutive Dylan to carry the torch between the Blazers’ pipes.
“It’s something we talked about in the hub season last year,” Blazers’ goaltending coach Dan De Palma said. “There was an opportunity to start preparing for the chance to pack the mail. You don’t just wake up in December and have those habits.”
De Palma, the club’s longtime goalie whisperer, helped Dylan Ferguson through this exact scenario when Connor Ingram earned national duty at the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship.
“He’s played goal a long time and he’s going to play goal for a lot longer,” De Palma said of Ernst, who is 3-0 this season, with a .923 save percentage. “Every moment is going be the next big moment. Just focus on the process, focus on your habits and all these moments come and go and, hopefully, they come and go the right way.”
Ernst’s habits have developed through vigorous practising, De Palma said, the ice sessions especially vital considering Garand has dominated the crease this season.
“Credit to Erny,” De Palma said. “He’s bought in.”
Added Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston: “When you see it in practise and it translates to the games, it gives the player confidence in themselves and the staff confidence in what the player is able to do.”
The Blazers are second in league scoring and may be able to get Ernst out of trouble in the case of an off-night, but allowing many goals and scoring even more will most certainly not be the game plan during Garand’s absence.
Clouston said Ernst’s performance last week in Portland and his 24-save night in a 3-2 overtime win over hometown Victoria on Nov. 6 are indicators he can not only survive, but be a difference-maker.
Highlight-reel glove work didn’t hurt dressing-room belief in the backup, either.
“You can’t make up confidence,” De Palma said. “Confidence comes from doing something you didn’t do yesterday. From the team’s perspective, they look at Erny and they see him improving and doing things he didn’t do the day before.
“From his own eyes looking out, he’s feeling that, too. The confidence is growing.”
TEMPORARY NO. 2
Keegan Maddocks is expected to be the No. 2 netminder while Garand is toiling for Canada.
In October, Clouston sent an eighth-round pick in the 2021 WHL Prospects Draft to the Pats in exchange Maddocks, an 18-year-old goaltender from Langley.
Maddocks is playing this season for the Merritt Centennials, who are 0-13-1-0 in junior A B.C. Hockey League action.
He is 0-7-1-0 and has a .833 save percentage.
AMONG BEST IN NATION
Kamloops (17-2) is scheduled to square off against Vancouver (10-7-1-0) on Friday in Langley and play host to Kelowna (10-5-0-2) on Saturday, a 7 p.m. start at Sandman Centre.
The Blazers posted a 4-0 record on a U.S. division road trip that concluded on Saturday with a 3-2 victory over Everett.
Weekly KIA CHL Top-10 Rankings will be released on Wednesday and it seems likely the Blazers will leapfrog over the Silvertips into second position.
Everett and Kamloops are tied atop the Western Conference, with 34 points apiece.