ST. CATHARINES, Ont. - In the grand scheme of things, being on the brink of elimination – with one lifeline still available – isn't enough to send Mark Visentin into a panic. That's because the Niagara IceDogs' veteran goaltender rarely, if ever, panics.
"He's a rock back there," said IceDogs captain Andrew Agozzino. "Nothing really fazes him. He's the backbone of our team and he's been great for us. We've hung him out to dry a couple times and we take responsibility for that."
The IceDogs dropped a 4-1 decision to the visiting London Knights at the Jack Gatecliff Arena on Wednesday night. Niagara trails the best-of-seven series 3-1 with Game 5 scheduled for Friday night in London's John Labatt Centre. While Visentin has been in more daunting situations over his young career, he says his team shouldn't be in the position of having to claw their way back into the Ontario Hockey League championship series. Game 4 was marked by a slew of IceDogs turnovers, many of which led to odd-man rushes for the Knights.
"We've given them their goals and their opportunities," said Visentin. "I don't think much of it has been earned. It's been tough in the room, but at the same time it's great to face some adversity and we've faced some adversity already in this playoff run and we've gotten through it. I'm really confident in the guys we have. We have a really superior team in there and we're mentally tough. We're going to have a good refreshing day (on Thursday) and come at ‘em on Friday."
After the loss, the first-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes was pedaling away on a stationary bike outside the IceDogs dressing room. Talking to him though, you'd never have known he'd just given up four goals on 21 shots or that the IceDogs had even lost the game – there was no hint of anger or frustration in his voice. He believes dwelling on the past, even if only 20 minutes after leaving the ice, isn't conducive to success.
"There's no point being negative. It's just a waste of thought. When you play the game of hockey, negative people aren't successful. Sometimes you have to go through a negative experience to learn positive things. I've learned that the hard way."
Just based on what the 19-year-old has gone through as Team Canada's goaltender at the last two world junior championships could qualify him to teach a master class. Visentin has gone from being the teenager blamed for Canada's epic third-period collapse that cost them the gold medal in 2011 to the hero who found redemption in helping Canada earn bronze this past January. He said he continues to work with his sports psychologist to help him work though the mental aspect of his game.
For Visentin, the greatest challenge in a game isn't getting psyched up, but rather trying to quiet his mind to focus clearly on the tasks immediately at hand.
"I think one of the biggest things you have to do is calm your brain down in a game so you can find that quiet zone, relax and focus," said the Waterdown, Ont., native. "People always talk about getting amped-up for a game. I believe you can do that, but you have to keep your nerves calmed down and make sure you're still level-headed. It's easy to get pumped up and go out and make a silly mistake because you're buzzing around the ice when your brain is working a thousand miles an hour."
But even with his zen-like attitude, there's no discounting how much effort Visentin has put into honing his craft.
"He's the hardest working goaltender I've ever met," said Agozzino. "He's ready and prepared for everything. He's been though a lot and he responds well. I expect a big game from him in Game 5 and I know he'll be ready."
Visentin's counterpart at the other end in this series, Michael Houser – recently named OHL goaltender of the year -- says he's equally up for the task. Unlike his IceDogs counterpart, the accolades have been harder to come by for the London puck stopper. The Wexford, Pa., native is unsigned, undrafted and was passed over – twice – by Team USA despite stellar numbers in the regular season (2.47 goals against and a .925 save percentage).
If Visentin's long-running storyline is about redemption, Houser's has been about finally earning some respect.
"Any time you beat a goalie of that calibre it's always rewarding," Houser, who was also named the OHL's Most Outstanding Player this season, said Wednesday. "I have to make sure I'm at the top of my game because he will be, too.
"It's been a good goalie series so far. We've both made saves like we were expected to and I expect the same from him on Friday."
Armed with the power of positive thinking, Visentin believes it's not the big picture, but rather, focusing on the small details that will help them stay afloat in the series.
"I think about how hard we've worked to get here," said Visentin. "And there's no reason to give up – I don't think anybody is – our guys are committed to a full 60 minutes next game to do whatever we can to get back into the series. That's the way we have to look at it, we don't have to win three games. We just need to win one game at a time and keep our heads at a level state and not get too high or low.
"It was our goal to win the league this year and it still is."