Hat goalie hits prime

CAMERON MAXWELL -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

The adversity Kevin Nastiuk faced didn't kill him, it just made him stronger.

So strong, in fact, the Medicine Hat Tigers netminder has become the best goaltender in the Western Hockey League.

But to get where he is now, the 19-year-old Edmontonian had to go through hell for a couple of seasons on some brutal Tigers clubs.

"It's been a progression and I learned a lot through my 16 and 17-year-old seasons when we didn't have as good a team," said Nastiuk, a Carolina Hurricanes prospect whose Tigers play the Calgary Hitmen tonight in Medicine Hat (7:30 p.m., FAN 960).

"You learn a lot going through the tough times. I was facing a lot of shots every game, like 40-plus shots. They were good quality shots against teams that could put the puck in the net.

"When I was younger, it was kind of scary going in and playing some of the tougher teams knowing you're going to get peppered."

The Tigers were longtime WHL doormats. In 2002-03, they posted a 29-41-2 record with 314 goals against. Nastiuk, then 17, played in 42 games, winning 15 of them with no shutouts.

Last season, they improved to 40-20-9-3, gave up only 216 goals and were crowned league champions with Nastiuk winning all 40 games with four shutouts.

Fast forward to this campaign, where the defence-first Tigers (10-1-1) lead the league and have given up just 13 goals in 12 games, while the man they call Nasty leads all WHL 'tenders with some staggering numbers -- including a miniscule .90 goals-against average, a .964 save percentage and a franchise-record five shutouts in 10 outings.

"We pride ourselves on defence now," said Nastiuk, a late invite to the junior national team development camp in Calgary this summer after David Shantz of the Mississauga Ice Dogs suffered an injury

With the season Nasty's having so far, Canadian head coach Brent Sutter will be hard pressed to keep him out of the lineup at the world junior championship in December.

One of his goose-eggs this season came in a 1-0 win against the Hitmen at the Saddledome Oct. 15. Nastiuk faced only 16 shots, a testament to the Tigers' new approach under third-year coach Willie Desjardins, a former bench boss with the U of C Dinos.

Hitmen sniper Ryan Getzlaf has a plan to beat Nastiuk: "With his skill level, you've got to be shooting all the time and get traffic in front of him. If he can see it, he can usually stop it."

The Hitmen return to the 'Dome tomorrow for a contest with the Moose Jaw Warriors at 7 p.m.


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