He’s backstopped the Guelph Storm to the top of the CHL rankings, a first-place finish during the OHL’s regular season, and an OHL championship. And now netminder Justin Nichols has backstopped the Storm to the championship game of the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
And to think, in September, Nichols was just another back-up waiting for an opportunity.
“The way I look at it, Sault Ste. Marie did me a favor,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t going to get a lot of playing time behind Matt [Murray]. They gave me a chance.”
The Storm traded a 2015 third-round pick [Plymouth’s] to the Soo for Nichols in September. The rest, they say, is history as Nichols made the most of his opportunity, playing in 50 games, winning 35 and losing only seven with a 2.85 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
Even then, it wasn’t until he won one of the league’s top individual awards and the trade deadline passed did he feel like the number-one role was his.
“I think it was right after the month of January when I won Goalie of the Month,” he said. “Obviously, right after the trade deadline happened in January, I knew it would be between me and Matt [Mancina] — once that passed, I knew it was going to be me.”
Leading up to the trade deadline, he knew there were whispers that the Storm might search out a bigger name.
“In the back of my mind I [realized that Guelph might look for a more established goalie], but that didn’t impact what I did on the ice. I just went out and played every game trying to give my team a chance to win as a starting goalie for the Storm,” he said. “Obviously other people talked about bigger names out there, but luckily we were able to use the assets that we had to go after players like [Kerby] Rychel and [Nick] Ebert without costing what a bigger name would have cost them.”
Bigger is a factor in everything about Nichols’ play. Listed at 5’10", he’s not the "preferred size". And that just motivates him more.
“Obviously there’s a stereotype that bigger goalies are attractive — that they look for those guys 6’2" and above,” he said. “I’m obviously well under 6’2", so I just try to do my best. I try to keep myself big in the net.
“I can’t control how tall I am, but I try get in front of the puck as best I can. Obviously I have to be better at something because I don’t have that size.”
At the Memorial Cup, he knows he has an opportunity to prove himself to scouts — but he’s not trying to prove anyone wrong.
“I don’t necessarily want to prove people wrong as much as people say I do — I just want to win the tournament. Good goalies win and that’s all I want to focus on,” he said. “Anything will be great. I just want to play well here. If I get an offer or if I get some looks, well, that’s what I’m trying to do. If not, I’m just going to come back next year and do the same.”
Winning goes a long way, Nichols said. And he looks no further than the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals for inspiration.
“Teams are looking for guys that can win. Obviously that’s a trait,” he explained. “Look at Dustin Tokarski playing in Montreal right now. He got that opportunity because we won a Memorial Cup with Spokane. Peter Budaj’s a veteran in the NHL, but Dustin Tokarski’s playing because he won, so teams are looking for that trait.
“I’m just going to battle and show them what I can do — that’s all I can do.”
From being a back-up in the Soo to potentially being the starting goaltender of the Memorial Cup champions — it’s been quite a ride. And the humble and self-effacing Nichols credits his Greyhound netminding partner for a lot of help.
“It’s a whole different world almost. We were out in the first round with a young team, with some young players,” he said. “I think I learned a lot from Matt [Murray] last year. He’s a great goaltender going into the Pittsburgh organization. He taught me a lot — how to be professional, how to handle myself, so as much as that year I didn’t get a lot of playing time, I really learned a lot of the intangibles that I’ve been able to bring this year and improve my on-ice play to a new level.”
So traded for a future third-rounder?
“It worked out — I think they got me for accurate value at the time,” he said, laughing. “But I think I’ve outplayed that a little bit.”
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