Not too many teams could lose a top-flight goaltender to a season-ending injury and replace him with an MVP calibre guy, but that’s what the Chilliwack Chiefs have with Daniel Chenard.
Mathieu Caron went down with a knee injury in late November, just as Chenard was arriving back in town after spending the first half of the season coming back from hip surgery.
Unfortunate for the tremendously likeable Caron, but fortuitious for the Chiefs to have the top goaltender from last spring’s RBC Cup championship sitting in reserve.
Chenard checked back into the lineup last Saturday night against Powell River.
It wasn’t the debut he hoped for as he gave up five goals on 21 shots in a 5-0 loss.
But the 19 year old felt a sense of relief afterwards.
“I’m back to 100 per cent,” he said. “I obviously wanted to start off with a better game, but I think it was a good game to get out of the way. Once I get used to the guys and they get used to having me back there — once we get that trust going it’ll be a lot better.”
Chenard had been getting extra work in practice trying to shake the rust off, but as any goalie will tell you, staring down live bullets in a game is a completely different experience.
“The coaches put together some good drills to simulate game experience as best they can, but reading the play and stuff like that, you can only get that in a game,” Chenard noted. “There are so many different scenarios that can happen, and once I start reading the plays like I was reading them last year things will go better.”
The last few months were really tough on the Ontario native, going from the high of a national championship to the low of surgery and rehab.
Chenard was here, briefly, in September to meet his teammates before heading home.
“It was tough and there were a lot of days where I missed being at the rink and working hard with the guys,” he admitted. “But I looked at every day with a positive mind-set and told myself it was better to get the work (surgery) done so I could play without pain and come back at 100 per cent.
“It (the pain) wasn’t too bad last season and I was able to play through it, but after games it was a bit tough where I had to ice it and take it easy.”
Taking it easy is the last thing on Chenard’s mind now, which is why he might be the only player in the Chilliwack dressing room who has mixed feelings about the holiday break.
Just as he returns and tries to get back into a rhythym, the Chiefs get a two week gap between games (Dec. 15 to 29).
“I wish I could have been here a little longer before the Christmas break,” he said. “But it’ll be good for the guys to go back and see their families, and it’s always a fun time.
“I can get a couple games in before the break, hit the gym just about every day over the break and push it when I get back.”
The Chiefs have been fortunate to have Nolan Hildebrand to hold down the fort.
The Summerland native has played 285 minutes and 50 seconds since Caron went down, posting a .908 save percentage, 2.32 goals-against average and four wins.
“He’s been good, especially the last couple games and he seems to be seeing the puck a lot better and not fighting rebounds like he did the first few games,” said Chiefs head coach Brian Maloney. “He’s a 20 year old who’s hungry and wants a scholarship and wants to be a starter.
“I had multiple chances to move him before we knew that Caron was hurt, and I talked to Nolan about it because he needs to play. If Chenard is the goalie we think he is and he gets back to where he was last year, Nolan and I will have to decide if it’s still the right fit for him here.
“He’s been a backup with some darn good programs and I think he can start in a lot places.”
The Chiefs finish off their pre-Christmas schedule on the road, visiting the Coquitlam Express tonight (Friday) and the Langley Rivermen Saturday.