Undertaking his first Ontario Hockey League playoff run, Barrie Colts defenceman Michael Webster has a little more confidence than your average rookie.
No one ever wants to make a mistake, especially in the postseason, where every aspect of the game is magnified. But Webster believes he and his fellow Barrie blueliners have a 5-foot-11, 171-pound safety net.
They have goaltender Mathias Niederberger.
“You don’t have to worry about getting beat or giving up a challenging shot because he’s proven he can keep that door shut,” said the 17-year-old Webster. “He doesn’t give up many rebounds and he really makes a defenceman’s job easy.”
It looked easy on Sunday night when Niederberger made 35 saves to shut out the Oshawa Generals 4-0 and steal an important road victory. The only time the Generals came close was early in the first period when the 20-year-old netminder made an initial save, but lost the puck in his crease. He fell flat on his back, with the puck smothered underneath, as a hoard of Generals tried to jam it free. By the time they managed to pry the puck loose and whack it over the goal line, the referee had already blown the whistle to call the play dead.
After the whistle, Niederberger got up without any fuss and skated away from the ensuing scrum.
All series long, the native of Dusseldorf, Germany, has shown great composure. He admits feeling some initial nervousness during the Colts’ four-game sweep of the Kingston Frontenacs, but that quickly subsided. The Colts have a 3-0 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal and can put the Generals away on Tuesday night.
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Last season he helped the Colts to the semifinal as well, though they were beaten in Game 7 by the Ottawa 67’s. In that postseason run, he was one of the OHL’s top goaltenders with a 2.34 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 13 games. This year his numbers are even stronger – a 1.85 GAA and .948 SP.
“I have a lot of expectations for myself,” said Niederberger, who has backstopped the Colts to seven straight playoff wins. “The nervousness is out of everybody and we’re playing much better over 60 minutes.”
The nervousness is gone for Webster, as well, in part because he knows the veteran netminder is watching his back.
“Earlier in the year, when I didn’t know as much and I was still getting used to the speed of the game, he really helped me out,” said the rookie. “I’ve learned a lot from him, probably as much as I’ve learned from the coaches, just about where to be.
“Right from the start, he’s been giving me tips on what angles to give up. Obviously, he’s tight on his angles. He’s one of the more vocal goalies I’ve played in front of and that really helps out. He’ll tell us where to be and if we’re out of position, he’ll let us know. He encourages us and it’s really helpful to have another set of eyes back there.”
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When asked about the advice he’s given to help the young blueliner, Niederberger shrugs it off.
“Webby always plays great,” said Niederberger. “Once in a while I’ll just tell him little positioning things. But it’s a team effort that we don’t get scored on. Our (defence) always does a terrific job.”
When asked about his own accomplishments, the netminder isn’t interested in taking any extra praise or credit for the victories. Having already played briefly in Germany’s top pro league, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Niederberger knows the right things to say.
“I rely a lot on them, they help me out every night,” he said. “They’re there for me. When (Oshawa) starts to slash me and stuff they’re always there to protect me. I’m proud to have defencemen like that.”
Niederberger might have a soft spot for defencemen since his father, Andreas, patrolled the blue line during his 20-year pro hockey career in Germany. That also includes representing his country at both the Olympics and the World Championships.
Following in the family’s international hockey tradition, Niederberger represented Germany at the world junior championships (Division I) in 2012. He was named best goaltender in the tournament and helped Germany move into the premier tier with powerhouses such as Canada, Russia and 2013 champion U.S.A. He said he strives to be an ambassador for German hockey every time he steps on to ice, even when he’s playing for the Colts.
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“If you try your best and you’re a good guy, then maybe (CHL general managers) will look at more German guys,” Niederberger said. “There are a lot of German guys that want to come over and try to play here. They’re willing to work really hard to get here, and then when they get here, work even harder.”
That extra effort and attention to detail is one of the main reasons Niederberger has the Colts on the verge of an Eastern Conference final.
“He’s very meticulous, especially in pre-game,” said Webster. “He tries to perfect, he’s always looking for perfection and obviously he found it tonight.”
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