EDMONTON — As a junior, Jared Bednar was a suitcase, playing for four different Western Hockey League teams. As a pro, a call-up meant jumping from the East Coast Hockey League to the American League.
Forget the NHL, Bednar would have to retire from playing, then coach another 14 seasons before he enjoyed his first NHL game — at age 42.
Can you imagine how much the Colorado Avalanche’s head coach enjoys being the guy who is giving goalie Michael Hutchinson the biggest opportunity of his journeyman career?
“I love it,” said Bednar, after Hutchinson’s second straight win over the Dallas Stars gave the NHL it’s first Game 7 of the Bubble Hockey Era, set for Friday night in Edmonton.
Hutchinson, the 30-year-old who has minded the twine for 11 different professional teams since the Boston Bruins drafted him back in 2008, stopped 27 shots in a 4-1, Game 6 victory Wednesday. He had made his first career playoff start two nights before and won Game 5.
With the top two Avalanche goalies injured, suddenly Hutchinson and this rare opportunity find themselves at the same spot. A curious crossroads indeed.
“A lot of hockey is just being in the right place at the right time, and being able to take advantage of certain opportunities that come up,” the former Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs backup said. “This whole situation, with the bubble and everything going on, is so absurd and surreal at the same time.
“I’ve been able to play quite a few NHL games, practice with teams for quite a few years. I’ve always felt like my game was in a place where, if I got an opportunity I could be successful. Now, the guys in front of me, winning these last two games is on them. As a goalie, when you have a team that works that hard in front of you, it makes my job a lot easier.”
Of course it does.
Truthfully, the Avs protected Hutchinson as if he were fragile goods, limiting chances like never before in this previously high-scoring series. Even the Stars’ first line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov paid homage to a good story, ghosting this Game 6 with an effort that had Stars head coach Rick Bowness sounding exasperated.
Asked what he needed from that line, Bowness spoke plainly:
“To produce. Simple as that,” he said, a 3-1 series lead now heading towards a slippery Game 7 finale. “Their top players are producing and our top players are not. Don’t sugar coat it — it’s what it is. Your top players have to carry you at this time of the year and they’ve got to produce. You put them in a position, as much ice time as you can and best offensive positions as you can and then they’ve got to produce.
“That’s as simple as it is. That’s what it is.”
Playoff scoring leader Nathan MacKinnon (9-16-24 in 14 games) had yet another stunning performance, setting up Mikko Rantanen and scoring an empty netter that sealed this affair. He is the Conn Smythe favorite at this early juncture, though it is hard to see a scenario where any team that is down to its third-stringer in net can furnish anyone with a long enough run to lay claim to that chalice.
For now though, Hutchinson is the juiciest story out West.
How many times over the years did he think he’d played his last NHL game?
“Numerous times in my career,” Hutchinson admitted. “My career has been a long journey, sent down and called up a bunch of times. There are always some moments when you get sent down when you think you’re never going to play another NHL game, but those moments, you put them behind you. Just keep working hard and trying to be a good teammate.”
Bednar can’t get enough of this kid, and all that he represents.
“It’s not just for Hutch, but for all the guys that don’t have an easy path. But they want it. And they stick to it. And they buy into their dream, they invest in themselves and continue to battle to play at the highest level they possibly can, and then they eventually get a chance,” Bednar said.
“There’s value in those players, because they appreciate what they have. Playing in the best league in the world, playing this game for a living… You have a healthy respect for what it takes to get here, and when you get here you don’t want to let it go. They tend to give it their all every single night.
“There are lots of ups and downs in guys’ careers. It’s not an easy league to get to, and certainly not an easy league to stay in. But if you respect the game, and you give it the effort it deserves, you come to appreciate it. I couldn’t be more happy for this guy. He’s just a great teammate, a great person. It makes him easy to cheer for.”
They’ll cheer for Hutchinson for one more night, at least.
Of course, in a Game 7. Where every Canadian kid’s dreams always end up.