For Zach Fucale, ‘little slap in the face’ critical as Habs prospect girds for Team Canada spotlight

MONTREAL — In the long run, that bump in the road last spring might have been the best for Zach Fucale.

Accolades and acclaim have piled up so steady as rent over the goalie's junior hockey tenure that it has become easy to take the Montreal Canadiens hopeful for granted. Quebec League record for wins as a 16-year-old starter for the Halifax Mooseheads. Memorial Cup champion and first goalie to hear his name at the NHL draft in 2013, going to his hometown Habs, no pressure there at all. He won Canada's starting job during the 2014 world junior championship, albeit on a team that came home medal-less after losing the semifinal and bronze games to Finland and Russia.

But the goalie's most valuable experience in the past few months might have been faltering. The Mooseheads had to make a mid-series goal switch away from Fucale during the semifinal vs. the Val-d'Or Foreurs, parking the goalie who had played in 80 per cent of the regular season games and 100 per cent of the playoff tilts across three seasons. Fucale needed the reminder it's not necessarily surprising to get yanked.

"Was it surprise? Yes and no because I had some rough ones," Fucale said Friday, when Canada's national junior team wrapped up its summer development camp with a penalty-tilled 5-2 loss to the Czech Republic. "I'll be honest. I wasn't playing my best hockey then. Maybe I needed that little break, maybe a little slap in the face. Maybe that's what you need. Take a step back to move a couple forward.

"The fact that it didn't go the way I wanted, sometimes it happens," added Fucale, who looked strong during two half-game appearances this week. "You have those rough patches. I'm telling you, I really learned a lot. It's helped me in my preparation for this camp, also, and the next two camps — the Mooseheads' and the Canadiens'."

The 19-year-old from Rosemere, Que., north of Montreal, had the largest media scrums all week aside from anyone whose name rhymes with Honour McDavid. The relatively laid-back vibe of Canada's summer camp — where no one is getting cut and, in case anyone forgot, it's August — is light-years from the microscope Fucale, as a Habs prospect, could be under come Boxing Day at the Bell Centre.

One common contention nowadays with promising young athletes, which always seems to be made after the fact, is they haven't learned how to fail. Fucale dealt with it during that Val-d'Or series when the Mooseheads felt compelled to turn to his backup, Kevin Darveau. Fucale picked up his play in his return, but the Anthony Mantha-fuelled Foreurs ultimately pulled out a 3-2 win in Game 7 and went on to win the President's Cup.

"I had a very good couple first rounds," Fucale recalled. "The team was very good in those first two rounds. I had a rough start to the third. So it came to the point where Darv came in and did extremly well. They put Darv in in order to gain some momentum back in the series. In the end, we ended up losing — a lot of things happened — but it's a learning experience and sometimes coaches have to take those decisions. You have to accept them."

As a 19-year-old, Fucale will surely find his place with the Mooseheads to start the season. He's firm in his conviction that he still needs more seasoning in junior.

"There's always — always — something to prove to NHL teams following you," said Fucale. "Every time you are on the ice, there's something you have to prove. It always has to be proven once more. You can never be sure. To me, that's something that I'll have on my mind as I'm playing all year. It's good to be able to be consistent. This year is going to be a very good year.

"I need just more of everything. Just more consistency. Getting stronger physically. Learning new things about mental approaches. Get one step closer to mastering that routine that makes a pro goalie, which is the ultimate goal."

All four goalies had two half-game stints during the week, which isn't enough of a sample to determine a pecking order. Fucale's stints synced up with some of Canada's best stretches; Tuesday when the team came out of the gate with a 6-2 win over the Czechs. He was also the reliever Thursday, when it pulled away from Russia to win 6-3. Conversely, Winnipeg Jets second-rounder Eric Comrie was somewhat left out to dry, as the Czechs scored four goals (two on power plays) during his half of Friday's game.

"Overall all of the players here, we got much better as a team from the beginning of the week till now," Fucale said. "I had a good couple of half-games. Made some progress for sure."

Come tournament time, though, the other three goalies in camp will just be names on a list to most fans. The other has the weight of expectations that come with being a Quebecer chosen by the Habs. That was illustrated when Fucale relieved fellow Memorial Cup-winning goalie Tristan Jarry on Thursday in Sherbrooke. A snippet of organ music reminiscent of what used to play at the Montreal Forum was heard over the P.A. system, while the crowd at Palais des Sports responded with a loud ovation at the mere mention of Fucale's name. Fucale heard it.

"It was probably for Jars coming off," he said, modestly.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.