Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Winning two junior titles puts Fitzpatrick on goalie radar with Blues

Netminder helped Acadie-Bathurst win QMJHL, Memorial 
Cup, is wildcard to join San Antonio at AHL level this season

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The final shot on goal on Blues goalie prospect Evan Fitzpatrick in the championship game of the 2018 Mastercard Memorial Cup -- the 17th in a frantic third period -- came with 3 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.

Fitzpatrick made the save, of course, to cap off what would be a 3-0 victory over the host Regina Pats to claim another championship for the St. John's, Newfoundland native.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie prospect Evan Fitzpatrick won titles
in the QMJHL and Memorial Cup this season.

It was only fitting that Fitzpatrick, 20, would slam the door shut with a 28-save performance on a second title, weeks after he helped lead Acadie-Bathurst Titan to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship and cap off a season that Fitzpatrick, a second round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, will not soon forget. It is one in which it's difficult, yet rewarding, to explain.

"I don't know. Just a lot of fun being with a great group of guys and just working hard every day, enjoying it, staying in the moment, not thinking too far ahead, not thinking about too much besides having fun, and that's what it all really came down to," the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Fitzpatrick said recently during prospect camp. "Every day I went to the rink with a smile on my face, enjoyed it and just worked really hard.

"We had a really solid team all through, but my opinion, in the Quebec League, there's going to be dangerous shots no matter what from wherever, so no matter what, I felt like I stepped my play up along with the step-up of my team and just made my job easier and made it more pro-like."

Fitzpatrick's fortunes changed on Feb. 1 when the Titan acquired him from the Sherbrooke Phoenix for fellow goalie Reilly Pickard. Fitzpatrick, who had a 3.44 goals-against-average and a .892 save percentage in three and a half seasons with the Phoenix, suddenly was thrust into the spotlight and good fortune of playing with the Titan, who finished second in the regular season behind Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.

Fitzpatrick went 17-3-0 with a 2.24 GAA and .915 save percentage down the stretch for the Titan before leading them to the title and playing in all four games of the Memorial Cup and winning three.

"Winning's fun," Fitzpatrick said. "In Bathhurst, we had a couple of 10-game win streaks, we were just having a ball and, it's just a little different than losing. Having fun is winning, it's … at the 'Mem' Cup, we had an 8-6 win, I'd take that over a 1-0 loss. It was just a lot of fun.

"It definitely made me believe in myself a lot more. When I got to Bathhurst ... in Sherbrooke, I was second-guessing different things, but as soon as I got there and got playing, I realized what am I, what my potential can be, just how to approach every game moving forward in my career."

To be traded out of Sherbrooke seemed to be a blessing.

"I kind of wanted out, I wanted to try to find myself again and it was by mutual agreement," Fitzpatrick said. "Sherbrooke wanted to get younger for the next couple years. They looked for the best fit for me and I appreciate them a lot and every single person in the organization. Finding me a good fit like Bathhurst was great.

"At the deadline every year, whichever team's trying to load up will go for older guys or more established players. For me, I played with a guy that's been traded eight times and I've played with guys that played all five years for the same team. It just depends on what the other teams are looking for and what you bring to the table."

And what made the season more fun was Fitzpatrick helped eliminate Sherbrooke from the playoffs.

"That was nerve-racking," he said. "Going into it, you're like, 'Oh shit, this is going to be weird.' I got scored on, I think, the first shot, after that it came natural like playing any other team. Shaking everyone's hand, it was sad to see a lot of my great friends' junior career come to an end but a little bit of a pride that you got removed from that team and beat them in the playoffs. I played with a little chip on my shoulder."

But once Fitzpatrick kicked it into overdrive, the Titan thrived, and he was a large part of it.

"You know what, he's made a lot of progress," Blues director of player development Tim Taylor said. "You can't deny someone that wins a championship. ... He got traded and his game just went skyrocketing at Christmas time. At first when he got there, it was a learning curve for him. I think he let in four or five goals but after that, I think he had a .923 or .930 save percentage. Dave Rogalski, who we hired as player development goalie coach, has done a really good job with our goalies in general. He's already been working with [Ville] Husso and now he's going to be working with Hofer and now obviously with Fitzpatrick. He's done a really good job this year with him. He's instilling lots of confidence. I think with goalies, especially Evan, now it's his confidence level and if he can take that to the next level. We have a lot of good things planned for him.

"He had spurts last year where he played really well and then he didn't, so mentally, that's the next level he has to get to. With that old saying, you forget what just happened. He has to get to learn how to do that and move on. With Dave Rogalski this year, he's done a really good job."

Both were high-level achievements and equally as meaningful as the other.

"Winning the 'Q' was what you worked for all year," Fitzpatrick said. "You played 68 games plus 20 playoff games. Whether or not we won the 'Mem' Cup, we were still champions in a way. When we got to the 'Mem' Cup, we didn't know what would happen. Every team would have still been happy with their season. For us, our coaches told us, win one game, you're automatically in the tiebreaker. We won the first game, we really felt everyone knew we could do it, so we went out the next night and played back to back, which is always a little tougher, but we went out and we scored seven goals in two periods and one minute or something like that, and then we started really started believing we could beat anyone and had a little scare in the third period. We shook it off and we knew the scenario going into Game 3, which is lose by a goal or win and and you're in the final. We played it out, it happened that we had a little bye, a little rest and playing in the finals, it's anyone's game. As soon as we won, it was the best feeling. The best junior team in Canada is something special."
(Acadie-Bathurst photo)
Goalie Evan Fitzpatrick (right) makes a save during the 2018 Mastercard
Memorial Cup. Fitzpatrick is a Blues prospect selected in the second round
in 2016.

Fitzpatrick, who faced fellow Blues prospect Robert Thomas in the Memorial Cup and surrendered a goal to Thomas in a 3-2 Hamilton Bulldogs win, could conceivably return to junior hockey for one more year, but in the case of Thomas, it would be considered counterproductive. The goalie depth chart in the organization includes Husso, Jordan Binnington and Luke Opilka, but Fitzpatrick could be a wildcard to watch out for as a candidate for San Antonio of the American Hockey League. 

"Everyone knows what the organization has," Fitzpatrick said. "... For me, it's coming to camp and playing my best and see where they want me. For me, it's trusting the process and whether that's the AHL, East Coast, junior, whatever their decision may be, it's for me just trusting it and moving forward.

"I like to think so (being NHL-ready). The last half of that season kind of shows that being put up against the top competition and whatnot that I can do it. For me, it's trusting and believing in myself and letting the pieces fall into place. ... I just want to play my best and hopefully we'll see what happens."

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