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Pistons' Thiessen Seizes The Opportunity

By. Mike Sawatzky

They are deep into the post-season now, a time normally reserved for the toughest, most battle-tested among them.

Veteran players — the 19- and 20-year-olds — are the engines that drive most junior hockey clubs in the playoffs and it hasn’t really been much different in Steinbach this season.

But there’s an important difference with the Pistons.

The recently crowned Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions rely on their youngest player to perform in the most pressurized, least forgiving job in the game. Matthew Thiessen, who won’t turn 18 until June 6, is their main man between the pipes.

The Altona product is expected to be the starting goaltender when the Pistons host the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Nipawin Hawks in Game 1 of the best-of-seven ANAVET Cup series Friday night.

The Hawks claimed the SJHL title Tuesday night with a 2-1 win in Game 7 against the Estevan Bruins. They were crowned Canalta Cup champions 18 days after the deadly bus crash involving the league’s Humboldt Broncos.

"I don’t know if we had a specific plan," said Pistons GM and head coach Paul Dyck. "We have two very capable goaltenders. It’s just kinda the direction it went and Matt’s been incredibly consistent all year long. He just kinda seized the net at one point. It’s been impressive what he’s done as a 17-year-old on this stage. It’s not something you typically see at our level from a goalie that young."

Thiessen spent the regular season splitting duties with Winnipegger Matthew Radomsky. Radomsky appeared in 28 games, going an impressive 20-5-0 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage while the Pistons ran away with the MJHL’s regular-season title.

Thiessen appeared in 34 games, posting a 28-3-0 record, 2.06 GAA and .923 SV%.

During the post-season, the tandem split the workload during a first-round sweep of the Swan Valley Stampeders but since then it’s been 12 consecutive starts for Thiessen.

His playoff numbers (10-4, 1.60, .944, four shutouts) have been extraordinary but not altogether unexpected.

Pistons goaltending coach Dan Ferguson recalls a save Thiessen made midway through a pivotal Game 5 of the league final, a desperation glove stop on a rebound that helped the Pistons gain control of the series after dropping Games 1 and 2 to the Virden Oil Caps.

"He said, ‘I kinda got lucky on that one.’ I said, ‘No, you didn’t get lucky, you’ve been preparing that way for the last two years in practice," said Ferguson.

Thiessen’s dedication to his craft has been opening doors.

Despite being passed over in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft, the Pistons made him a third-round pick in the MJHL draft and then last fall, Thiessen committed to attend the University of Maine on a hockey scholarship (he’s expected to join the Division 1 Black Bears for the start of the 2019-20 season). This summer, he is likely to be a mid-round selection in the NHL draft.

"I knew Maine was the place for me," said Thiessen, remembering his first exposure to hockey came on an outdoor pond when his dad, an RCMP officer, was stationed in the northern community of Lynn Lake. "It kinda had that Lynn Lake feel to it. It’s snowy, it’s in the country. The atmosphere of the hockey and the coaching staff was unbelievable. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s where I want to play college hockey.’"

The progress of any goaltending prospect is notoriously difficult to predict but Thiessen appears to be taking a very deliberate path to the highest levels of the game. He’s 6-2 and 192 pounds, which fits in with all the measurables pro scouts are looking for. And then there’s his laser focus and maturity.

"I’m happy with the demeanour. Overall, I think he’s just a leader at such a young age," said Ferguson. "He’s able to handle pressure in a unique way, being a leader on and off the ice. I think as a goalie, guys in the room can look at him and be confident playing in front of him. Even when we’re down, when we’re down by a goal or two, they’re still confident."

How serious is Thiessen?

Well, consider his career path: after playing bantam and midget AAA for the Pembina Valley Hawks, he moved to The Rink Hockey Academy in Winnipeg in 2016-17.

For the last three seasons, he’s participated in the NET360 goaltending camp in Kelowna, B.C., an intensive off-season program that has helped to push puckstoppers such as Connor Hellebuyck, Devan Dubnyk and James Reimer to prominence in the NHL.

Thiessen has embraced the school’s cutting-edge methods, promoted by health and fitness guru Adam Francilia.

"He does an unbelievable job. He sets up workouts that really help you with core exercises and posture," said Thiessen of Francilia. "I’ve incorporated a lot and the coaches have been spectacular. I can’t say enough about how they’ve helped me."

Francilia’s attention to detail on matters such as nutrition, flexibility and posture have had a lasting impact.

"I think my fitness is pretty good," said Thiessen. "I’ve been going to the gym to maintain my strength. I try to stay in shape for the whole year, which I think I’ve done a pretty good job at."

Thiessen may only be scratching the surface of his potential.

"The next few years he’s going to continue to develop — more in regards to the speed of the game," said Ferguson, who has coached goalies for the past 10 years and is also the Director of GDI Goaltending and headquartered at The Rink. "I really see a jump this year in regards to his patience, his mobility has improved and the one thing that’s always been part of his game is his compete level."

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Thiessen has been training with GDI through 1v1 Lessons and the G1 Off-Season Program. Thiessen is also a graduate of the Rink Hockey Academy Nationals Midget Prep Team. GDI Director Dan Ferguson is the goaltending coach of the Steinbach Pistons.