GLENS FALLS -- It’s been about a month and a half since Terry Murray called out his goaltenders, saying they needed to be better.
The Adirondack Phantoms head coach definitely got results, especially out of Cal Heeter. The second-year goalie now leads the AHL in goals against average, save percentage and is tied for lead in shutouts. His .989 save percentage over three games, including back-to-back shutouts, last week earned him Player of the Week honors, the first for a Phantom in at least two years.
His week was the epitome of consistency, arguably the hardest thing to achieve in sports and exactly what he was lacking early in the season.
There have been highs — like the 34-save win at Binghamton to break the six-game winless streak or the 26-save win against Springfield — as well as lows — like the five goals on 24 shots at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“So now when I don’t have a great game, I can still have a good game,” Heeter said. “Earlier in the year, if I wasn’t having a great game, I was having a bad game.”
How did Heeter achieve consistency?
Heeter said it was a matter of calming down and focusing on the game, not getting distracted by power plays, fights, goals or whatever it is. Murray agreed, saying Heeter was competing hard last year, but sometimes putting himself out of position as a result. This year he has a greater sense of where he needs to be mentally and physically.
Heeter played arguably his worst game of the year the day before Murray called him and Yann Danis out — Danis had played a similar game the night before. Heeter allowed five goals on 18 shots in a 5-3 loss to Albany.
“It’s not a negative, it’s a challenge,” Murray said Thursday. Heeter echoed the sentiment, saying it’s Murray’s job to call out players, and any good player will step up.
“If the coach criticizes you, there’s a reason,” Heeter said. “For me, when he said that, it was a good wake-up call, ‘You know what? You’re right, I do need to be better.’ ”
The whole team has been better since then, particularly on the defensive side. Heeter has perhaps improved most of all.
Much of the improvement has been mental, so the changes to his game have been relatively small. He plays at the top of the crease more now, using his 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame to cut off angles a bit more, and has improved his glove saves. Both of those have made for fewer uncontrolled rebounds.
Murray pointed out the second and third chances off the glove that teams were getting last season or early this season that just aren’t there anymore. Heeter pointed out the fewer “desperation saves” he is making. Needing to make too many big, sprawling saves can be a sign of poor positioning — though there will always be two-on-ones or turnovers where it’s necessary — and that’s something Heeter has been working on.
Unsurprisingly, the team builds off Heeter’s strong play. It’s something of a cycle — strong defensive play makes for fewer wild saves and uncontrolled rebounds, which allows the defense to relax some. The team play then opens up and everything flows a bit more.
“Every night we know,” defenseman Bruno Gervais said. “Even sometimes I think we get a little too confident because we know he’s back there making the big saves, we still gotta make sure we’re sharp in front of him. But every night we know and it shows on the bench. Guys are really calm, really confident. If we take a penalty, we know we’re going to get through this.”
The improvements are small steps for Heeter. He said if you can improve a fraction of a percent at a time, eventually you will have made big improvements. It’s about creating good habits and maintaining them.
“It might take you six months to get that half a percent, but that half a percent can be the difference between having a good game and great game,” he said.