The man they will eventually refer to as the greatest goal scorer of all time had just hit Daniel Vladar in the middle of his chest with a shot.
Holding on for a whistle, the 24-year-old Flames netminder was approached by Alex Ovechkin whose words prompted both to break into large grins.
In a tense, 3-3 game that had just minutes remaining in his first start as a Calgary Flame, the obvious question afterward was, ‘what on Earth were you two giggling about?’
“I think he was just trying to get in my head,” smiled the soft-spoken, ultra-respectful Vladar following Saturday’s 4-3 overtime win in Washington.
“He kept telling me the whole game, ‘I’m shooting glove, I’m shooting glove,’ and he was shooting blocker. I was laughing — it was kind of funny.”
What a fantastic anecdote and memory for the man with just six NHL starts to his credit.
Alex the Gr8 had indeed handcuffed Vladar earlier as part of the Capitals’ second-period comeback, scoring his 735th NHL goal by deftly finding the sweet spot under the netminder’s blocker.
Teammate Martin Fehervary found the same spot minutes earlier.
“With him being that tall and lanky, it was always a challenge getting his hands up to speed at the pro level,” said Boston Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa, who worked with Vladar for many years before the Flames traded for him in the summer.
“For a six-foot-five guy he moves really well, and can probably beat the pass as much as anyone. But with his hands he kind of put himself behind the eight-ball because of the month of August he was all banged up.”
The month of August he was referring to came a handful of years ago, just one year after the towering teenager from the Czech Republic was drafted 75th overall.
We’ll let Vladar tell the story.
“Oh my gosh, it happened during training,” said Vladar of an accident that threatened his development just before the Bruins’ training camp his second year as a pro.
“I was running in the forest and as I was going down a hill I tripped and fell over.
I was falling down on my head so I put my hands underneath me. I got up and didn’t feel anything and then I got home and looked and said, ‘oh my god, what is going on?’ Both wrists were super swollen. I went to the hospital and next thing I know I had two casts.”
Two broken wrists, including one that required surgery. Hardly ideal for a youngster hoping to make a living with them.
“I couldn’t move my wrists, I could only move my fingers,” said Vladar, wiggling the same digits he used to make 22 saves Saturday before making a long pass to record his first NHL assist on the overtime winner.
“It was miserable. Getting into a house with keys, I couldn’t. I couldn’t button my jeans or my shirt — all these things you don’t think about, but you just can’t do. I could drive, but only automatic. No manual transmission.”
His goalie coach helped him get into his skates and goalie gear for light, on-ice training, as his girlfriend, Andrea, helped him through endless daily challenges.
“Now I can laugh, but I wasn’t laughing at it back then,” he smiled. “I looked like a weirdo.”
He returned to Bruins’ camp late and split the next two seasons between the ECHL and AHL before a breakthrough season two years ago that saw him lead the American League in goals-against average (1.79) and save percentage (.936).
“At least it happened at a time when I didn’t need my hands — if it was during the season it would’ve been worse,” he said. “Even right now I feel I’m even stronger because I was doing a lot of rehab. It kind of helped me a lot.”
Fast forward to Saturday’s exchange with one of the game’s greats, where he continued proving to coaches and management he’s got the skill, mindset and demeanour to be an everyday NHLer.
Before starting the five-game road trip Darryl Sutter said he’d start Vladar on the trip, but most assumed that would come in the midst of the back-to-backs the team plays Monday in Manhattan and Tuesday in Jersey.
Sutter clearly gained confidence in his backup through Vladar’s solid training, starting him despite the fact the only bad outing in his previous five NHL starts was against a Capitals team that lit him up for eight goals last season.
“I’m sure he was nervous, but he was really solid,” said Sutter. “The second goal was a good shot from that side, and then Ovi from the other side. I’m sure there are saves he’d say ‘okay, I’ve got to have that one’ but at the same time those are good shots.”
While the hockey world expects Sutter to ride Jacob Markstrom like he’s ridden Miikka Kiprusoff and Jonathan Quick in the past, the coach has hinted Vladar will see more time than most anticipated.
“I was hoping he’d do well,” said Essensa, echoing the sentiments of longtime Bruins star Tuukka Rask, who wildly endorsed his former teammate.
“He is a very likeable, down-to-earth guy. Very unassuming. He appreciates everything that gets done for him. I couldn’t have been happier for him when he got his first NHL victory with us. He was the player of the game and he was overcome with emotion. He’s a quiet kid who didn’t want to give a speech, but he said ‘this is the greatest night of my life.’”
Getting the best of Ovechkin as part of his first start with a new organization might have been a close second.
“Obviously he’s one of the best players to ever play this game so I have a lot of respect for him,” said Vladar of Ovechkin. “But at the same time, I’m really happy that we beat his team.”