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This article was published 7/12/2017 (1380 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Michael Hutchinson has a good thing going. So good, in fact, he doesn’t want to tempt fate by talking to newspaper reporters.
The AHL’s goaltender of the month in November started three consecutive games for the Moose last week and stopped 108 of 110 shots, as the club notched three more wins. The team’s Central Division-leading 17-5-1-1 record has been matched by its No. 1 goaltender’s red-hot numbers — 9-1-0 with a shutout, a 1.73 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage.
With Eric Comrie recalled by the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets as an injury replacement, Hutchinson has seized the opportunity to dominate much as he did in 2013-14, when he was first promoted to the Jets’ AHL farm club in St. John’s from the ECHL’s Ontario Reign.
Hutchinson’s stellar play helped the IceCaps roll to a berth in the Calder Cup final that season.
"I’ve been around Hutchie for a while now. I played against him when he was in Providence (with the AHL’s Bruins) but when he was in St. John’s, he was probably one of the best goalies I’ve seen at the AHL level," veteran Moose defenceman Julian Melchiori said following practice at the Iceplex Thursday morning.
"The goalie I see now reminds me a lot of what I saw in St. John’s when he took us to the finals. I saw that in the NHL at times. It’s a little bit different there, your leash is a little bit shorter. But I don’t think I ever questioned Hutch as a goalie."
Out of training camp, Hutchinson has been a revelation after being demoted to the AHL following three full seasons in the NHL. He plays with an authority uncommon in the minors.
"He’s smart and he sees plays before they happen, especially with his rebounds," Moose defenceman Peter Stoykewych said. "He puts a lot of them exactly where he wants to put them. A lot of the time, that’s right to us. Especially on penalty kills, he’ll actually direct the puck so we have the best chance to get to it first. It’s little things like that that make a difference."
The demotion hit hard, which was to be expected. The fierceness of Hutchinson’s response may have surprised some.
"I think he’s probably a little bit pissed off, too," said Melchiori. "He thinks he deserves to be there, which he should. Everyone wants to play in the NHL and thinks they should, so I think a little bit of that is he’s pissed off and some of that comes out in his game. He’s out to prove something. He’s not just here to win games for the Moose, he’s here to go back to the NHL."
Moose head coach Pascal Vincent, who expressed some concern out of training camp that the demotion and inevitable trade speculation surrounding Hutchinson could be a distraction, has been thrilled with the goaltender’s demeanour and professionalism. Manitoba has a league-leading plus-38 goal differential and Hutchinson remains a tempting trade target for an NHL team in need.
"He’s on a mission right now," said Vincent, who will start Hutchinson again Saturday when Manitoba hosts the Milwaukee Admirals at 2 p.m. "His goal is to get back to the NHL and he’s been really good around the team and he’s been successful. We’re playing well in front of him, but when we needed him and Comrie to make some big stops for us, they did. It’s no issue whatsoever. Actually, it’s been really positive."
Improved goaltending has been instrumental in Manitoba’s reversal of fortunes in 2017-18. Last season, the Moose finished 25th overall in the 30-team league and out of the playoffs. This fall, they are tied with the Toronto Marlies for first overall in the AHL. Curiously, they are allowing 33.42 shots against per game, up slightly from 32.20 a year ago.
"It’s the quality of the shots," Vincent said. "Teams are shooting a lot from the outside and as soon as they see an opportunity to shoot the puck, even if it’s not the right shot selection, they’re still shooting. The quality of the chances we give to the other team is not the same as last year."
There are other less-obvious factors contributing to Manitoba’s success.
Stoykewych said one is that Hutchinson’s ability to take charge of a shoot-in by the opposition takes some of the guesswork out of exiting the defensive zone.
"Even five-on-five and penalty kills, getting out to stop wrapped pucks, it’s incredible for us how quick he is out there," Stoykewych said. "He’s able to knock (the puck) down off the glass for us and leave it for D-men and then we’re out of the zone. Then we don’t even have to deal with a shot, as opposed to us chasing rims around the zone and having a defensive-zone shift because of it. It’s really those little things that don’t show up on stats sheets that he’s really good at."
mike.sawatzky@freepress. mb.ca Twitter: @sawa14
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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