His team was trailing 4-1 late in the first period when Jesse Makaj, who had started the game on the bench, got the call to replace rookie starter Gage Alexander last Saturday night in Swift Current.
His job was not ideal: stop the bleeding and hope for a miracle.
"I was just thinking, ‘Keep my team in the game, keep it as close as possible,’" the 18-year-old Winnipeg Ice goaltender said Friday morning. "I know we have a good offence and we could come back. And we did."
It turned out Makaj was up to the task and so was the Winnipeg offence.
Although the Broncos scored a late goal to take a 5-1 lead to the dressing room after 20 minutes, Makaj was impenetrable the rest of the way while his teammates revved up their offence to tie the game in regulation, forcing overtime, before winning 6-5 on Connor McClennon’s shootout goal. Makaj finished with 21 saves, not including three stops in the shootout.
Ice head coach James Patrick had witnessed his youthful team chase the lead in three consecutive losses heading into that game and he wanted a stronger start against the Broncos.
"Our whole focus was to treat the first 10 minutes like overtime," said James, who used the goalie switch as a timeout. "Every puck’s going deep, every puck’s going behind their defencemen. And we did that. We got a 1-0 lead first shift and we gave up a goal five minutes later... and then it was like the floodgates opening.
"For the next six minutes, I didn’t like what we did, I didn’t like how we really got puck-watching — really bad habits and details and no one had their stick on the ice in the D-zone."
Overage blue-liner Reece Harsch feels a growing confidence with his teammates.
"There’s always a chance for a comeback," Harsch said. "Jesse, he made a couple of good saves early and gave us momentum. (Patrick) gave us a pretty good talk in intermission. We’re a confident team, we know we can score goals."
The Winnipeggers will likely need a more sustained effort today and Sunday when they host the Saskatoon Blades in a pair of key divisional games at Wayne Fleming Arena. Both games start at 7:30 p.m.
The Blades are second in the East with a 7-4-0-1 record. The Ice are six points back at 4-4-0-1.
Makaj, who missed all of training camp and the first three weeks of the regular season while recovering from a bout of mononucleosis, is expected to bring stability to the club’s convoluted goaltending situation.
Alexander, meanwhile, is the No. 2 with veteran 19-year-old Dean McNabb (knee) and 16-year-old rookie Will Gurski (upper body) unable to play.
"I feel good, honestly," Makaj said. "After the first 10 minutes against Medicine Hat (allowing goals on his first two shots in a 5-2 loss), it’s more about the game and getting used to the atmosphere. So after the first 10 minutes, I thought I was solid against Medicine Hat. In Swift Current, I felt really good. I felt dialed in. I’ve always been a guy that adapts quickly."
Patrick said Makaj is getting close to top form after his illness.
"That’s probably why he didn’t start back-to-back games, but it’s coming," Patrick said. "He’s looked really good to me. He’s looked good to our goalie coach."
SAVOIE RETURNS: No. 1 overall bantam draft pick Matt Savoie returns to the Ice lineup for both weekend games and he’ll slot in as the right-winger on a No. 3 line with centre Owen Pederson and left-winger Michael Milne.
Savoie, who is splitting his season between the Ice and the Rink Hockey Academy prep team, went pointless in his first three WHL games earlier this season.
Pederson believes it’s only a matter of time before the 15-year-old breaks out.
"It’s pretty impessive for someone at that young of an age to have that much talent and upside," said Pederson, who allows moving Savoie in and out of the lineup could hamper him early in the season. "It could slow down the chemistry a little, but every time you get the chance to play with him, it’s good for our line, good for our team."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.