By Bob Crawford
Goaltending often makes the difference in late-season and postseason hockey, and no individual was more responsible for the positive results the Connecticut Whale enjoyed last spring than netminder Cam Talbot.
After starting only 25 of the Whale’s first 68 games, and playing second fiddle to Chad Johnson, Talbot got the nod in five of Connecticut’s last eight games of the regular year, and then played all nine of the Whale’s playoff contests. He was strong in the stretch run, posting two shutouts, a 1.17 goals-against average and a 95.9% save percentage in those last five regular-season starts, and the second-year pro really caught fire in the postseason. Talbot shut out the in-state rival Bridgeport Sound Tigers, in back-to-back 3-0 decisions, in the first two games of the Whale’s first-round sweep of their Fairfield County adversaries, the first time in franchise history a goaltender had posted zeros in consecutive playoff games. That was the start of a performance that would see Talbot register a stellar 93.9% save percentage, along with a 2.10 GAA, as the Whale’s playoff anchor.
That season-ending run had Talbot chomping at the bit to get back into action for the upcoming 2012-13 campaign, but about five weeks ago he suffered a bump in the road.
“I was just at the gym, working out, doing a ‘plyo’ (plyometric) workout, went over on my ankle the wrong way and ended up breaking a bone on the outside of my foot,” Talbot said Wednesday.
The timing of the injury, barely a month before training camp, after such a positive finish to last season, was more than a little maddening to Talbot.
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“Very frustrating,” were the Caledonia, Ontario native’s words to describe his initial reaction. “That’s the first thing I thought of is, ‘I hope nothing’s broken,’ because I don’t want to have to miss any time, I want to pick right back up where I left off and start the season off well. I’m still hopeful that’s going to happen, but it’s looking like it might be held off a little bit.”
The injury setback does not, however, dampen Talbot’s pride in how he finished 2011-12, or his excitement about seeking to carry the momentum over into the new season.
“I was extremely happy the way we finished the season, the way I finished the season personally,” Talbot said. “It was a big step forward for myself, probably playing the best hockey I’ve ever played. It was great to be able to do that, and even get recognized and get the callup at the end of the season (for the remainder of the parent New York Rangers’ postseason run). That meant a lot to me, and I’m just looking to start the season the way I finished it, and keep pushing forward, keep getting better and keep working hard.”
As for the timetable on his recovery, Talbot reported, “I’m going to see the team doctor (Thursday). They said it was four to six weeks in a cast, so hopefully no longer than four or five more days in the cast. Then once I get the cast off, it’s basically how hard we can push it. I’m trying to be back for the home opener (October 12 at the XL Center), but we’ll see about that. I’m going to try and get back on the ice sometime next week, and then push it as hard as I can and get back for (the season opener).”
Talbot almost seemed to flip a switch in his play late last year, all of a sudden looking like a different goaltender than the one who had been unable to unseat Johnson from the number-one role over the course of nearly two years. When asked if he did anything differently to turn things around, though, Talbot points not to anything during his hot streak, but to a time earlier in the season when he hardly played at all.
“I think it (the key point) was really about a month before that (his season-ending run),” Talbot said. “I think I might have played in maybe one game in February. Chad went about four weeks before I actually got a start. So when I wasn’t playing, I was just working hard off the ice, with the trainers and the strength coach, and working as hard as I could on the ice, to make sure I was in good shape when I got back in the net. When I got back in the net, I ended up being in probably the best shape I’ve been in, so I think that definitely helped contribute to my on-ice play and my conditioning, stuff like that. So I think that’s when the lightbulb pretty much went off, is, ‘I’ve got to get in better shape and be ready for when I get back in there’, and I think I did a pretty good job of that.”
The proof of that is in the results, and the challenge now for Talbot is to latch onto the number-one role. That slot is there for the taking, after Johnson left the organization as a free agent this summer, signing with the Phoenix Coyotes.
“I don’t think it plays any different mentally in my head,” said Talbot about whether he is looking at his situation any differently to start this season. “I think every game I’ve got to approach it the same way, whether I’m going in as just playing on a Sunday or going and starting Friday-Saturday. Either way I’m going to want to go in and play the best that I can and give the guys the best chance to win. Obviously I hope to play more games this year with Chad gone, but I’m just going to take it one game at a time and try to play the best that I can when I’m in there.”
That philosophy of taking it one game at a time helped Talbot finish last year as one of the sharpest goaltenders in the AHL. If he is able to bring anywhere near that level of play over the course of a season, the Whale will be well set at the game’s most important position, and the Rangers’ March 2010 signing of Talbot out of the University of Alabama-Huntsville will have proven to be a brilliant pickup.