Last season, goaltender Matt Dalton led his Bemidji State University Beavers to their first Frozen Four appearance. This season, the rookie pro is a big part of the reason that the ECHL Reading Royals will make the playoffs.
The 23-year-old is very competitive, and fighting for playoff position the past few weeks is the kind of thing he lives for.
"I think my whole career this time of year I’ve played pretty well," Dalton said. "I like to consider myself a big competitor and it’s not hard to get up for these types of games."
There have been ups and downs, but the free-agent signee of the Boston Bruins says he feels good and confident right now. He has the sixth-best save percentage in the league, at .908, along with a 21-19-0-4 record and 3.38 GAA. Dalton has faced the most shots per minute than any starting goaltender in the league.
"He’s been very good for us," Reading head coach Larry Courville said. "He was a little frustrated coming down from the American League [in November]. But they felt for his development he needed to play a lot of games. He got the opportunity to go up to Boston a couple times and get some confidence. Boston has a lot of plans for him and that’s why they want him here in the East Coast league where he can play a lot of games.
"Even though we don’t always play well in front of him defensively, he’s made a number of saves and works very hard every shift," Courville added.
Dalton has seen time with the AHL Providence Bruins this year as well, and his numbers are similar there, with a .904 save percentage and 3.26 GAA in six games.
Dalton also had the opportunity to practice with Boston as the Olympics were winding down, and then returned earlier this month as a backup due to an injury to Tuukka Rask.
"It was such a great experience just to see the lifestyle and see what those guys do every day to be where they are," Dalton said. "It’s amazing how hard those guys work. They deserve to be there. They work so hard. To be up there and see what it takes, get adjusted to the speed a bit, was great. A lot of fun."
He appreciated the pay raise, but doesn’t plan on spending the money. He said he’ll "put it in the bank for a rainy day."
More importantly, the experience of being with the NHL club has motivated him since he’s returned to Reading.
"That’s where you want to be. Just to get a taste of it makes you hungrier to get up there," Dalton explained.
"He competes, he doesn’t get rattled," Courville said of Dalton’s best assets. "When he gets run over, he’s right back up, ready to go again. After a goal, he rebounds and makes the big save when we need it. For a young guy, he’s really poised and is a good guy in the locker room also."
The Clinton, Ontario native is self-taught, and that’s why he looks a little different from other goaltenders.
"I came from a small town in Ontario, I think I started being a goalie just by default — we didn’t have anyone else who wanted to play goalie," Dalton recalled. "I just hopped in there. It worked out well for me. I try to watch other goalies, no matter what level or where it is. I try to take little things from other guys and put them into my game."
Dalton played a lot of baseball growing up, at both catcher and shortstop, so he feels good about his glove. The 6’1, 194-pounder is quick with the pads in the butterfly position and relies more heavily on his blocker than other goaltenders, but interestingly he wouldn’t call his blocker his best asset.
"Personally I think it’s something I still need to work on," he said. "It’s one of the things I’ve been focusing on lately, trying to get better with my blocker. I feel confident with my glove, I don’t know if that goes back to being a catcher."
During games, a lot of pucks come hard off his blocker, but mostly into the corners.
"He’s good with his rebound control and forces pucks to the outside and not in front of him," Courville said.
Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa has worked with Dalton for the past year on being more technically sound, but more important than that has been the emotional support that he and the rest of the organization has given him.
"They’re people to talk to when you’re going through tough times," Dalton said. "It’s such a long season with so many ups and downs. It’s nice to have them to be able to talk to and know what you’re going through. They’ve been great. There’s a couple times I was getting really frustrated and I’d give [Bob] a call or I’d call Don Sweeney, the assistant GM."
Dalton said he is also close with partner Andrew Engelage in Reading and they support each other. Engelage was called up to the Toronto Marlies for a good part of the year though, which led to Dalton starting 21 games in a row. Playing three times a week, that’s a bigger workload than he was used to last season at Bemidji, where he only played in 31 all season.
His alma mater made the NCAA tournament without him this year, but lost in the first round. Dalton sees the program on the rise and said it won’t be long until they win a national championship.
"They do a great job recruiting not just good players but good people, which makes the team a really close group," he said.
Going from college hockey’s tight defense to the more wide-open ECHL was a big adjustment for him this year.
"It’s kind of run and gun here, which is fine, I get a lot of shots and a lot of odd-man rushes," he said. "But it’s good practice. At Bemidji, we were more defensive — all of college hockey is. There’s so much systems in college hockey. I would never see 45 shots at Bemidji."
The other adjustment was the quality of the shots, since in the ECHL, "the guys can shoot better too," Dalton said.
Never drafted, he wasn’t sure if he was a late bloomer or just didn’t get the looks due to where he was from. But it didn’t bother him at the time.
"I don’t know. I always thought I was, you know, good," he laughed. "I never played AAA hockey growing up. I’m from a small town so I probably didn’t get the exposure as a younger kid. It’s crazy — growing up I never expected to be where I am in hockey. I was playing with my friends, you know? Gradually you get to the next level and then set a goal. You get there and set another goal. You keep going and going."
Playing in the NAHL in 2005-06 was when he thought maybe he could do something in hockey.
"I started talking to all these schools and thought ‘Oh maybe this college thing would be alright,’" he said.
Dalton spent a year in the USHL and then two years at Bemidji State before leaving to take a pro contract with the Bruins. His pro career will have many chapters, but so far, so good. After hockey, he’ll return to much the same unassuming life as where he came.
"I’d love to — if I have enough money — have a farm," Dalton said. His family had one when he was growing up, and even after they sold it, he would work on dairy and pig farms around town as a teenager.
"Living out in the country, no people to bother you. It’s relaxing," he said.
No relaxing yet though. The Royals have just three regular-season games remaining. They are currently the seventh seed in the American Conference, and the competitor Dalton is in a groove. Reading will go as far as he takes them.