By Jason Pearson - griffinshockey.com
In the Detroit Red Wings’ game at New Jersey on Nov. 25, goaltender Jimmy Howard suffered an injury in the first period and soon thereafter would be placed on the seven-day injured reserve.
Cue the chain reaction of events for the Red Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids.
The phone lines were down for the next several minutes after the extent of Howard’s injury became known. The first number dialed was Jared Coreau’s, notifying him that he was Detroit-bound. Leaving a few moments for managerial logistics, the next call was to Cal Heeter, who was 8-0 at the time with the organization’s East Coast Hockey League affiliate in Toledo, to tell him his services were warranted in Grand Rapids. And the final call was to Eddie Pasquale, letting him know he’d be starting for the second consecutive game the next night at Cleveland.
After a brief stint on IR, Howard returned to Detroit’s active roster on Dec. 7, and the goalie situation in Grand Rapids resumed to where many at the beginning of the season had it penciled – Coreau ensconced into the starting role, with Pasquale providing support as his understudy.
When Howard went down again on Dec. 20, this time for a longer period of time, the goalie carousel started turning again with Coreau going up, Heeter returning to Grand Rapids and Pasquale getting on the horse the following night.
Teams across minor league hockey face the described quandary numerous times over the course of an arduous season. But what may be the differentiating factor for the Griffins is that the callups have not hampered the team’s progression up the AHL leaderboard, despite losing their top goaltender, who ranked in the top 10 in nearly every major statistical category last season. In fact, Grand Rapids has climbed in the standings with Heeter and Pasquale manning the crease.
During the first go-round, from Nov. 26-Dec. 7, Grand Rapids held steady in second in the Central Division, racking up points in six straight. Since Dec. 20, the club has climbed from third to first in the Western Conference and from sixth to third in the league.
Obviously a strong defensive effort in front of the goaltenders is crucial, but the puck ultimately stops with the person positioned between the pipes.
With 11 years of pro experience combined between them, Pasquale and Heeter are not typical back up goalies in the AHL and have proven their abilities to run with the ball when given an opportunity.
Pasquale handled primary duties for four seasons (2011-14, 2015-16) for St. John’s, appearing in 142 games and logging a 2.57 goals against average. Heeter spent his first two pro seasons playing in 76 games with the Philadelphia Flyers’ top development team in Adirondack and recorded one NHL start before spending the last two campaigns overseas.
“It doesn’t matter who we put in, we have total confidence in both guys,” head coach Todd Nelson said. “They’ve played some good games and they have stolen games for us.”
After starting 30 or more games each season during his time on “The Rock,” the 6-foot-2 Pasquale was assigned to Grand Rapids at the conclusion of Detroit’s training camp and had only two starts in the Griffins’ first 15 contests, just due to circumstance.
Unaccustomed to sitting on the bench for prolonged periods of time, Pasquale admitted it was tough to stay sharp in between starts.
“It almost feels like every game is the start of the season again, because you’ve been watching for two or three weeks at a time,” he said.
Pasquale kept after it in practice with goaltending development coach Brian Mahoney-Wilson and maintained a positive attitude, having been around long enough, as a sixth-year pro, to know that things can turn on a dime.
After the first callup for Coreau, Pasquale assumed the starter’s net for four of the next five games, and has started six of 11 contests since the second callup.
“(Coreau) was playing well down here so he got an opportunity to play in the NHL and that gave me an opportunity to get more games in down here,” he said. “You never want to see someone get hurt, but that’s why they sign guys in the summer and fill the depth because anything can happen. You need guys who can step up and keep winning games.”
In the midst of the transactions, Pasquale has displayed a steady 2.33 goals against average and a 0.918 save percentage (through Jan. 19) as a corollary from the increased ice time. He’s posted two clean sheets, with both shutouts coming against the in-hot-pursuit Milwaukee Admirals. He picked up points in nine consecutive starts, the longest such streak of his career, in a run that last from Nov. 12-Dec. 28.
“We have a very veteran group and a very skilled group on the back end and up front,” Pasquale said. “When we’re scoring and the defense is clearing pucks, it makes our job a lot easier and allows us to win hockey games.”
The other half of the successful goaltending equation is Pasquale’s creasemate, Heeter.
A St. Louis native who played collegiately at Ohio State, Heeter is enjoying his first season back in North America after spending the latter half of the 2014-15 season and all of 2015-16 overseas with Zagreb in the Kontinental Hockey League and Hamburg in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga.
With ties to Red Wings goaltending coach and former Buckeyes assistant coach Jeff Salajko that trace back to Heeter’s freshman through junior campaigns on campus, Heeter signed with the organization on an AHL-level deal.
As Coreau and Pasquale were sent to Grand Rapids to start the season, Heeter’s future found him headed to Toledo.
Given the chance to start a number of games for the Walleye, the 6-foot-4 goaltender took full advantage, winning his first eight appearances.
“I went (to Toledo) with a positive mindset, worked hard, played hard, and then that set me up for success when I got my opportunity to play here,” he said.
On the second night of a home-road back-to-back at Rockford on Dec. 3, Heeter earned his first start in a Griffins sweater and allowed only one puck past him on 34 attempts. Despite the win while playing in his first AHL contest since Nov. 8, 2014, Heeter was designated to Toledo as Howard returned from his initial injury.
As someone who is fully capable of producing in the AHL, having played over 80 games in the league, Heeter went back to work with the Walleye.
“I think it’s different from player to player on how closely you monitor your parent club,” Heeter explained while addressing the notion of the domino effect. “Me personally, my first couple years in the league, that was something I was following very closely. Since then, you follow the team and look at how they’re doing and how they’re playing. For me, you just focus on what you can control. Even on the team you’re on, you’re focusing solely on the things you can control – how hard you come to work in practice, how hard you work in games, how you treat your teammates. You focus on the things that are directly in your path. When things change, you just make sure you’re ready for that adaptation.”
Heeter showed he was ready for the change of scenery, returning to Grand Rapids when Howard went down the second time.
Staying mentally prepared amid the round trips from Toledo and Grand Rapids and then on the bus to wherever the Griffins’ schedule took them served as a major point of emphasis for Heeter. The mounting wins certainly helped his cause too. Letting up two goals or less in six of seven starts through Jan. 19, Heeter has collected a sextet of AHL victories this season. In fact, he’s only lost twice in 18 games combined between Toledo and Grand Rapids.
“With each game you play, you get more confidence in your game and more verification that ‘yes I do belong in this league.’ You just move on from there and slowly build your confidence level.”
Guys who were more or less competing for the second goalie job in Grand Rapids during Detroit’s training camp are now bifurcating the duties and excelling while maintaining a friendship.
“First and foremost, you want the team to do well,” Heeter said. “Obviously you want to play well and get starts when you can, but it ultimately comes down to the coach’s decision. You work as hard as you can, you hope you get your starts, but at the end of the day, there aren’t any hard feelings between Eddie and I, regardless of who’s playing.”
Pasquale, who shares not only dinners on the road but also an agent with Heeter, echoes the statement.
“It seems like since training camp, me and him have hit it off,” he said. “We’ve stayed good buddies throughout the year. We’re all the same, we’re all hockey players. Whoever’s in net, the other guy wants to play, it’s just the way it’s going to be, there’s always competition. It’s healthy competition and we’re still friendly.”
With Howard expected back in the near future, the carousel is likely to make another revolution. Wherever the chips fall, the Griffins have not missed a beat and have proven that goaltending depth is a strength as the club chases its fifth straight postseason appearance.