Taylor Gauthier returned to familiar surroundings at CN Centre Wednesday.
Fresh from facing professional shooters Monday in Buffalo, where he guarded the crease for the Boston Bruins in the second half of their 3-2 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils, Gauthier was back in his Prince George Cougars goalie gear for their final practice before they head to Dawson Creek for a two-game exhibition series against the Edmonton Oil Kings.
After a week of handling the rubber-biscuit barrage from the Bruins' top pro prospects in practice as one of three goalies in camp, followed by a period-and a-half of preseason game action, the 18-year-old Gauthier now has a better idea what it will take to earn a permanent position in pro hockey.
"It was obviously a really cool experience, it's something you work for a long time and to be able to put an NHL jersey and go out and play for an NHL team is a huge honour for me and I'm very happy I was able to do that," said Gauthier. "They have such a storied franchise there and to maybe have the potential to carry on that legacy, I take lots of pride in that. Even if it was just a rookie tournament, it's something pretty special to me and to my family, something I'll look back to for a long time."
Gauthier faced 14 shots and let in two, both to Devils' forward Ludvig Larsson, who scored the tying goal on a tap-in from the side of the net with 8.1 seconds left while the Devils were skating 6-on-4. Larsson also netted the OT winner, using a Bruins defenceman and a Devils forward as a screen when he beat Gauthier with a low shot from the slot.
"Whenever you step up to that level it's gong to be a little different but I think for the most part I handled it well," said Gauthier. "Everyone's a little bit faster, shots come in quicker and it's harder to pick up releases but I think I did a pretty good job of adapting to the scenario I was put in. Obviously it's harder to come in in the second half but I did the best I could and made the most of the opportunities I was given.
'We had a good couple days of practice and it was good to see those big shots coming in on you from guys who have played in the NHL. I was able to pick the brains of the coaches, who have been around the game for a very long time. I think a lot of my hard work paid off and I hung in there going up against the best of the best, going up against guys like (Devils first-rounders) Jack Hughes (who went first overall in 2019) and Ty Smith."
After being a workhorse in net for the Cougars last season and playing four of the seven games for Team Canada at the U-18 world championship in April in Sweden, Gauthier was touted as one of the top goaltenders available in the 2019 NHL draft in Vancouver. He flew from his Calgary home to attend the draft at Rogers Arena that weekend and left disappointed when his name was not among the 217 players picked. Two days later, he tweeted:
"What a whirlwind weekend. Thank you to everyone who has supported me over the last couple days. It hasn’t gone unnoticed, this has ignited a fire that hasn’t been lit before. I’ll be back better than ever. Looking forward to proving everyone wrong with the @PGCougars this season."
Now, after being invited to the Bruins' development camp in July and playing for Boston in the rookie tournament in Buffalo he knows he's officially on the NHL radar and is using that as motivation heading into his third season with the Cougars.
"Obviously coming in as third-year guy I'm looking to take on one of those leadership roles on the team," he said. "Any time you get some experience at a higher level, you come back to spread the knowledge you gained during your time away.
"I'm looking forward to getting in games with guys. We have a good mix or younger and older guys, so I think we might be able to take some teams by surprise this year. I think the only guys we lost were our three (20-year-olds, Mike MacLean, Josh Curtis and Joel Lakusta) and Vlad (Mikhalchuk, who left to play in the KHL) and lots of us have good chemistry with one another. Coming to camp we're all ready to go and in good shape and I think it's going to be a positive year this year."
The Cougars still have three goalies in camp, with incumbent 19-year-old Isaiah DiLaura and 16-year-old rookie Tyler Brennan also in the mix. Gauthier played in 55 of the 68 games last year and came out of the season with a 3.25 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. He's penciled in as the starter in 2019-20 but is taking nothing for granted.
"I'm in that battle right with them, you're never guaranteed anything, even if you were the starter last year," said Gauthier. "In this league, it's a business and the best goalie is going to get games. It's really a three-way battle right now and it will only help us in the long run."
Defenceman Cole Moberg and left winger Josh Maser, the other two Cougars who attended NHL camps, were due to arrive back in Prince George later Wednesday. Moberg, a seventh-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019, picked up two assists and a plus-2 rating in four games playing for the 'Hawks at the eight-team rookie tournament in Traverse City. Mich. Maser suited up for two games in the same tournament with the Rangers and finished with one assist and a plus-1 ranking.
Both are expected to play for the Cats in Dawson Creek when they face the Edmonton Oil Kings tonight and Saturday.
The Cougars started the preseason on the road last weekend with losses to Kamloops, Vancouver and Kelowna.