UPDATED AS OF OCT. 18
"Niko is day-to-day with a neck/whiplash injury. He will be re-evaluated over the weekend."
Hovinen is currently assigned to the Flyers ECHL affiliate, the Trenton Titans.
He stopped 11 of 12 shots he faced before leaving early in the second period during the Trenton-Reading game on Wednesday, October 17. The Titans went on to defeat the Royals, who are the ECHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals, 3-1.
TRENTON, N.J. – Asked to describe the difference between Niko Hovinen’s goaltending two weeks ago in an AHL preseason game and where he was after his first official start in North American professional hockey, Flyers’ goaltending coach Jeff Reese was all smiles.
“Night and Day,” he said after he and Flyers assistant coach Kevin McCarthy helped the Trenton Titans at their practice Tuesday. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement already.”
It probably helped a ton that Hovinen had a strong first outing for the Titans in their ECHL opener last week.
Hovinen had 31 saves in a 3-1 victory over Greeneville at the Sun National Bank Center.
“He played really well and got some confidence and a little of his swagger back,” Reese said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable with what we’re trying to do. He just got his family to move here from Finland [Hovinen has a wife and an infant daughter] and that makes him feel a lot more comfortable not just on the ice, but off it as well.”
Hovinen admitted that playing goal in North America, on smaller rinks and at a higher rate of speed, is something he has to get used to before he can really start to flourish.
At first he thought the adjustment wouldn’t be too hard – after all, he was told by many that the Finnish Elite League was the closest in terms of style to the North American Leagues.
But his indoctrination was anything but similar.
Hovinen was beaten repeatedly by shots to the short side because his angles in net were out of whack, thanks to the smaller ice.
As a result he struggled mightily in that exhibition game against Albany, and the Flyers brass knew immediately that the answer for Hovinen was to let him get his feet wet in the North American game in the ECHL, rather than struggle to find it in the AHL, which would start the season with more talent than usual with NHL caliber players participating during a work stoppage.
“It wasn’t the greatest day when they sent me down,” Hovinen said. “But when I look at it now, it was a good thing that I was sent down here. Obviously I wasn’t ready and I needed to work on a few things. There’s no better place to do that but here.”
The Flyers expected Hovinen to be their top goaltending prospect at the AHL level, but after seeing him during workouts in the summer, the Flyers hedged their bets and signed AHL veteran Scott Munroe.
Munroe was likely going to be on the Phantoms roster as an experienced voice, but that meant the other spot would belong to either Hovinen or Cal Heeter, whom the Flyers signed as a free agent after his career at the Ohio State University came to a close.
Heeter won the team over with his competitive style, which coupled with Hovinen’s subpar performance, was enough to have their chips each fall in the opposite place than expected.
That does not mean Hovinen’s star has fallen. The Flyers still have high expectations for the big Finn (Hovinen is 6-foot-7, which is the tallest goalie in the history of the ECHL).
“It takes a little bit of time to adjust sometimes,” Reese said. “The game is different over here. The rinks, the angles… it takes time. I know this is not where he really wants to be, but you know what? [Los Angeles Kings goalie] Jonathan Quick was in this league five years ago.”
And now he has a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his mantle.
“I feel better every day and I can’t wait to see what happens,” Hovinen said. “I want to go back up (to the AHL) as quickly as possible, so I’m going to work as hard as I can every day and improve on the things I need to improve on.”
NOTES: Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and assistant general manager John Paddock took in the Titans practice from the stands… Flyers prospect Marcel Noebels, who has three assists in two games, said he too is looking to get back to the Phantoms as quickly as possible, “I want to get back there before the NHL guys leave,” he said… The Titans next home game is tomorrow against Reading. Tickets are still available and range in price from $15-$30 per seat.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37