Johnson: Driedger ramps up play as Hitmen look to put Rebels on the ropes
The challenge of going against counterpart Bartosak has brought out the best in netminder
No different, really, than Joe Montana having Marino and Elway as comparatives. Or Koufax and Gibson trading Ks from the hill throughout the ’60s.
“I’ve had some pretty good goalies standing down at the other end already in these playoffs,” reckons Chris Driedger. “(Eetu) Laurikainen that first series was pretty unbelievable for Swift. And now (Patrik) Bartosak ... well, he’s obviously one of the best in the league.
“Does it help? Yeah. Sure. A little bit.
“The better he is, whoever it might be down at the other end, the better I have to play to keep up.
“I think I’m sharper when I have something to challenge myself with; someone to measure myself against. I think anybody does. You want people to acknowledge your worth. It’s fun trying to match a good goalie save for save. That’s just human nature, I think.
“If I outplay the other guy, most likely we’re going to come out on top.”
So far, he is. And they are.
And so the Calgary Hitmen and Red Deer Rebels reach the spin game of this Western Hockey League Eastern Conference semifinal, Game 3 of a 2-0 series. Win tonight, silence the 7,972 partisans packed into the ENMAX Centrium, and Driedger’s Hitmen are playing the tables with house money. Lose, and the pot’s all in, on the soft green velvet, waiting for someone to cash and someone to crash.
“This is huge,” agrees Driedger. “Absolutely. If we can go into Red Deer and win Game 3, it’s going to be unbelievable for our confidence. Taking a stranglehold lead would be stellar.
“But, honestly, we can’t think in those terms. That’s what can get you into trouble. Play the way we can and the wins will take care of themselves.”
Driedger blinked when asked if he’d ever trailed three games to nothing in a playoff series.
“Maybe back in ... midget? I don’t know. And that’s the truth. Honestly, I can’t remember ever being down 3-0 in a series. But you look at what happened in Kelowna-Seattle and anything’s possible.
“I can imagine it’d be deflating, though, yeah. Deep down.”
For Brent Sutter’s Rebels, crowding Driedger, pushing pucks, accompanied by bodies, into his living space is paramount this evening. Driedger’s 1.80 goals against average and .915 save percentage through seven starts early this playoff spring have sparkled. In the opener, he stopped 28 of 30 Rebel shots. The next night, 29 of 30.
So far, in that personal duel, the game within the game, he’s got a leg up on Bartosak. It’s up to the draft-eligible Czech to turn the tables tonight.
“In Game 1, I let in a pretty soft second goal but we were able to win anyway,” grumbles Driedger. “That’s good for us. Good in the sense that I don’t have to be 100 per cent perfect all the time in order for us to get the W.
“But at the same time, that goal didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to make sure I was better in Game 2. And if I’d let in one like that second one in Game 2, it could have been a different story.
“With no room for error, as a goalie that’s when you really have to battle. Those are the games you take the most away from.”
For Hitmen coach Mike Williamson, Game 1 might’ve been slightly easier on the ticker but the tenacity, the self-belief, required to grind out a result Friday is what bodes well for the task ahead.
“In Game 1, I thought we did a really good job of what we needed in terms of just getting pucks around the net and getting bodies there for second and third chances,” he judged. “That’s how we scored all our goals and Bartosak is such a good goalie and they’re so strong defensively, those are the types of goals we’re going to have to score.
“I thought in Game 2, our guys responded well to the change. It was a different game. A lot more intensity, we knew that was going to be the case. I thought out guys did a good job of being focused and not getting their feathers ruffled a bit. We found a way to hold a one-goal lead. Down the stretch, the last two, three minutes we got a couple big saves but for the most part our guys kept pucks to the outside and limited chances.
“We played . . . OK in Game 1. But (Saturday) night, I felt pretty comfortable looking down the bench that anybody I put on the ice was going to know what to do and give us a good shift.
“Game 2 is the kind of game we’re going to face in Red Deer. So I think it was important for us to win that way.”
The spin game of this Eastern Conference semifinal goes tonight at the ENMAX Centrium.
For Driedger, the rallying cry is twofold:
Bring on the Rebs. And bring on Bartosak.
“Yeah, I do enjoy playing there,” says Driedger. “It’s a great atmosphere and we do a really good job of putting Calgary fans in their barn. It’s always great when you hear ‘Let’s go Hitmen!’ chants in opposing rinks.
“Obviously, it’s a big rivalry. An hour and a bit up the road. We play ’em a lot. When we play ‘em it gets rough. There’s never any love lost.
“Those are the funnest games to play in. Throw in the fact that this is a playoff series, and that’s a great goalie down at the other end of the ice, and it only adds to the fun.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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