Fri Apr 13 11:23pm EDT
Mathias Niederberger has gone from curiosity to being cursed by opposing teams' fans.
In hindsight, it should have been no stunner at all the 19-year-old native with pro experience in his native Germany would eventually play lights-out in the Ontario Hockey League. But the beauty of junior hockey is that there's still some room for an element of surprise. Niederberger, a native of Duesseldorf, has brought the undermanned Barrie Colts to the brink of reaching the OHL's Eastern Conference final. Barrie is still up 3-2 over the Ottawa 67's after a one-goal loss on Friday where Niederberger made 43 saves to keep the Colts in the hunt until the final buzzer. The only pucks to get by him came when Ottawa's Cody Ceci one-timed a rebound from 10 feet out and on a scramble with 8.8 seconds left in the second period where Dalton Smith had Niederberger practically pinned to the ice while Tyler Toffoli slid the puck into the net.
"I wished I would get busy nights like this when I decided to come here," said Niederberger, who has a tidy 2.09 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in 11 playoff starts. "It's such a big difference with the smaller ice in Canada. Everything is straighter to the net. I like it, it's great. I think I adjusted pretty quickly."
Looks can be so deceiving in hockey. Niederberger, whose father, Andreas Niederberger, was a four-time Olympic hockey player for Germany in the 1980s and '90s, is listed at a compact 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds. Given the NHL's predilection for bigger goaltenders, it's not surprising he's only ranked 22nd on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American goaltenders. But he's playing bigger than his listed size. Beating him on anything but a deflection or rebound seems harder.
"He moves well laterally, so it's tough to get one by him," said 67's centre Sean Monahan, who assisted on both Ottawa goals on Friday. "He's good low and I think we just have to get goals like we did today, crash and bang and get screens in front of him."
Niederberger spent last season with the DEG Metro Stars before Barrie selected him 25th overall in the Canadian Hockey League import draft. Despite his pro experience, he's still occasionally referred to as a rookie. He had a good reason, though, for electing to hold off on crossing the Atlantic Ocean, having opted to complete secondary school in his hometown.
'Set an example'
Now he's one of a strong German contingent helping their teams thrive in the OHL playoffs. Edmonton Oilers pick Tobias Rieder is second in playoff scoring with 19 points in nine games for the Kitchener Rangers, who are tied 2-2 with Plymouth in a Western Conference semifinal. Should Barrie win its series and earn a date with Niagara in the Eastern final, Niederberger will face compatriot Tom Kühnhackl.
"I wanted to finish school really badly," Niederberger said. "That's why I stayed in Germany as long as possible. But it was the right step coming here.
"It's really important for us as German players that we set an example," he added. "We have to play well here so maybe more German kids get a chance to come and play here. It's the best league to improve yourself and realize your dream to play in the NHL. I'm really proud of my fellows [Kühnhackl and Rieder] for doing so well."
Andreas Niederberger, was beaming after the game while waiting for his son to emerge from Barrie's somewhat downcast dressing room. As a former pro, he was clear-eyed about his son migrating to North America for a better professional opportunity.
"That's a dream of every German hockey player, to have a chance to come and play in Canada," he said. "He had finished his school in Germany, so he decided to go. For us as parents, it [completing his secondary school education at home] was important. So even if it doesn't work out in hockey, he can go the way of normal professional people."
The notion of Mathias Niederberger being drafted probably seems like a stretch. One CHL goalie in his 19-year-old season was drafted last season when the Buffalo Sabres selected Nathan Lieuwen, who was the WHL playoff MVP with the Kootenay Ice. Lieuwen, though, had been through the draft process twice and is also 6-foot-5.
Whatever awaits Niederberger — and there were two overage import goalies in the OHL this season — he has become a treat to watch. The demarcation point in his year could well have come in December, after he helped Germany win the Division I world junior championship. He had a 3.16 average and .904 save percentage when he left for the event. Since his return, his rate stats are 2.23 and .933.
"The world tournament has to a lot do with it, for sure," he says when asked to pinpoint his success. "But I was home for Christmas. I was with my family. That helped me a lot."
Meantime, he'll have family in the stands when Barrie takes another crack at clinching the series on Sunday. Andreas Niederberger made plans to follow his son and the Colts until Tuesday, the date of a potential Game 7.
"I'm here to see three games now — but I'm hoping it'll only be two," the goalie's proud father said.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.