Jack McNaughton was thrown into the fire in late November.
He’s on fire now.
And because of it, the Calgary Hitmen have risen from the ashes.
Not too shabby for a 17-year-old goaltender who was branded to be a backup in his first Western Hockey League season.
The Calgary kid admits to being more than a little nervous in having the weight of a team that stumbled badly out of the gates suddenly thrust onto his shoulders just when momentum started to swing the Hitmen’s way.
“It was definitely a little scary (to begin with),” said McNaughton, a star last year with the Calgary Midget AAA Royals. “I’m sort of starting to find my rhythm with all the games under my belt that I have now.”
McNaughton took the crease for the host Hitmen in a win over the Red Deer Rebels on Friday night at the Saddledome and is likely to be in there again Saturday against the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers at the Dome (1:30 p.m.).
That’s the kind of workload it’s been for the lanky goalie.
It’s been back-to-back most weekends, and a few times, he’s appeared in back-to-back-to-back tilts.
In fact, the 6-foot-5, 175-lb. McNaughton’s been in net for all 12 games for the Hitmen since starter Carl Stankowski was forced to the sidelines with a lower-body injury in late November. The young netminder has an 11-9-1-1 record, a 3.62 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage, and he’s 8-3-1-0 since taking over crease duties as the de facto starter in a 6-2 loss to the host Rebels on Nov. 30.
“It was definitely a little scary that Saturday night (Dec. 1) finding out that I’m going in net again Sunday thinking about all the mental fatigue I had going on with all the physical fatigue that was going on,” said McNaughton of playing in all three games during his first weekend as the de facto starter. “But it was definitely nice to get that under my belt and get used to it so you can not be as stressed out the next time it happens.”
McNaughton has since stepped in for another three-game weekend along with a couple of two-game weekends.
And that brings us to the back-to-backs Friday and Saturday.
McNaughton made 20 stops in the weekend’s first game — a 5-3 home-ice win over the Rebels — getting run support from snipers Cael Zimmerman, with two, Bryce Bader, Luke Coleman and Kaden Elder.
All told, it’s meant consistency between the pipes for a Hitmen club that’s clawed its way back into a WHL playoff spot after a disastrous start to the season.
“Jack’s play has probably been stability borne out of necessity with the injury situation that we’ve gone through,” said Hitmen head coach Steve Hamilton. “If we projected at the start of the year the number of games Jack may play over the course of the whole year, he’s probably surpassed that if we are being completely honest with one another — and good on him.
“Because last year in midget, he would have split 34 league games and maybe played in 20 of them,” Hamilton continued. “So he’s already a year later in a much higher league surpassed those minutes and totals. That’s a lot of responsibility.”
But, honestly, McNaughton’s taken it on like a junior star in the making, often shaking off slow starts to keep his club in games, thanks sometimes to a bit of luck here and there.
“I like that he gets better,” Hamilton said. “I like it when he shakes off performances that he doesn’t like. He kind of dusts himself off and gets back up and responds. That’s a real competitive approach.
“And also he’s got some enthusiasm,” Hamilton continued. “He loves playing here. He doesn’t take anything for granted.
“That’s a humble kid and works hard for us in practice. We actually have to pull the reins back a little bit on him in practice because he’ll go-go-go.”
What happens when Stankowski returns — he was declared as being out week-to-week in late November — is anybody’s guess.
Even Hamilton seems uncertain just how that scenario will play itself out.
“At this point, with the injury situation being what it is, we’re going to have to assess what the next step is,” Hamilton said. “But for right now, Jack’s pretty comfortable.
“So we’ll start with the weekend and go from there.”
Stankowski was sporting a 6-6-2 record, a 3.72 goals-against average and an .879 save percentage — but improving with every game — before going down with the injury.
The best news, of course, would be to see both goalies trending in a positive direction upon Stankowski’s return.
So perhaps throwing the youngster McNaughton suddenly into the fray makes the Hitmen better despite an injury that could have otherwise ended their season way too early.
“Definitely I’ve gotten stronger on the mental side of the game — not being worried about the outcome and what people think about my play or anything like that and just staying a little bit more composed in the game,” McNaughton said.
“(Hitmen goaltender coach Jason LaBarbera) has really been helping me with that. He’s been through everything at every level of the game, so it’s definitely nice to have somebody to relate to that. He’s saying, ‘Just focus on your own game and what’s going on.’
“Staying in a playoff spot — that’s where I want to be right now,” McNaughton added. “I want to make it to the post-season.”
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