Mike Clemente is living a dream.
Mike Clemente is living a dream.
Missouri’s rookie goaltender was leading the CHL with 13 wins going into Friday’s game against Denver, and is a big reason the once-struggling team is coming off a sizzling 10-3-2 December that has seen the Mavericks climb out of the cellar into fourth place in the 10-team league.
“It’s hard to find the words to describe what Mike has meant to this team,” coach Scott Hillman said. “Amazing. Solid. He gives us a real presence in the net. He went out and won his first two starts, and you could see his confidence start to build when we brought him in to replace (Austin) Lee in that early season game at Denver where we were down.
“He was so solid in the net, and we came back to win 8-5, and he’s been winning ever since.”
As Hillman talks about his goalie, Clemente is out on the ice, stopping a barrage of shots against future stars Gunhar Hillman and Maddx Thinel, the young sons of the coach and Sebastien Thinel, the CHL scoring leader.
It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun, the big kid in the net or the little kids who are firing puck after puck in his direction.
Gunhar makes a point of celebrating every goal, so Clemente stops a shot and does his own little celebration.
That just makes the coach’s son more determined.
Thinel just watches the kids play, with a satisfied grin on his face.
“Mike is amazing,” the veteran forward said. “We’re not in fourth place without him. Without Mike, I don’t know where we’d be. He’s a good guy to be around – he always has fun. And we’re having fun because of the way he’s been playing.”
Clemente didn’t come to the Mavericks with a lot of fanfare.
He shared playing time with Mathieu Corbeil, who has battled injuries and been sidelined for more than a month.
“Confidence is everything in this game, and you can see Mike’s growing game by game,” Hillman said. “If it wasn’t for the NHL lockout, we probably wouldn’t have seen him at this level this season. He had a shutout at Springfield (of the ECHL) when he spent a short period of time there last season and has a world of talent, but we expected Mike and Mathieu to be sharing time in the net.
“Clemer has come up big for us, and now he’s become one of the top goalies in the league.”
Going into Friday’s game against Wichita, Clemente was 13-4-3 with a 3.26 goals against average and .895 save percentage. Over the past month, he went 10-3-2 with a 3.06 goals against average and .900 save percentage. Before Friday he ranked second in the CHL in saves behind Wichita’s Kevin Regan (545 to 543).
Page 2 of 3 - “You watch Mike and can’t believe he’s a rookie,” defenseman Blake Forsyth said. “He plays like a veteran. He keeps everyone involved out on the ice and he has a willingness to learn that is a big reason for his success. He’s so confident, and that makes his teammates confident.
“Like with Charlie (Effinger, who had 32 wins in the net last season for the Mavericks), you feel like you’re going to win with Mike in the net. We can make a mistake, let in a bad goal, and he never gets rattled. He just keeps encouraging us, tells us it’s OK, tells us to bounce back. And we do.”
Like the popular Effinger, Clemente has found his niche with the Mavericks.
No one has more fun, on or off the ice, and he never takes himself too seriously.
“He has fun, but he’s also one of the hardest workers on the team,” defenseman Dave Pszenyczny said. “We get off the ice and we’re pretty much done. He’s here until 1 or 2 p.m. working, stretching – doing everything he can to get better.”
After entertaining Gunhar and Maddx long after practice ends, Clemente signs a variety of sticks and pucks that will be used for promotional material and then sits down to talk about this season.
“I’ve never had this much fun,” Clemente said. “When the season started, we had three goalies – me, Mathieu and Austin – and none of us knew what to expect. As it turned out, Mathieu and I are still here and I’ve been getting a lot of the playing time because of his injuries.
“Scott hasn’t said anything to me about what’s going to happen in the future. Mathieu is a great goalie, and you know he’s going to get his time in the net. If we alternate starts, if Scott goes with the hot goalie – whatever happens – I’m fine with it because it’s just so much fun to be a part of this team.”
He’s coming off his first shutout in the CHL – a 1-0 victory over the Tulsa Oilers on New Year’s Eve – and will likely be in the net this weekend.
“You know what’s crazy?” the graduate of the Ivy League’s Brown University asked. “We were 10-3-2 in December. That’s 15 games – a half a college season. And I’m not even tired. It’s exhilarating to be out there, especially when you’re playing as well as we’ve been playing.
“We have three months left until the playoffs, and I can’t even imagine how much better we’ll be by then. We’ve had a lot of new guys come in and we’re all getting the system down. There’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of games to be won, and if the next three months are as exciting as the first three, it’s going to be a great ride.”
Page 3 of 3 -