Three seasons ago, Kevin Poulin was on the fast track to becoming a starting goaltender in the NHL. The Islanders fifth-round pick in 2008 was coming off his best season in junior, had a 10-5 start in Bridgeport and then posted a .924 save percentage in 10 games with the Islanders. Poulin was earning NHL playing time and had a 4-2-1 record, but his ascent was halted in an instant. The young prospect dislocated his knee during warm-ups against Toronto and sat out the rest of the season.
The injury stalled Poulin’s NHL timetable, as did a crowded Islanders crease, but he's since created another opportunity for himself. The Montreal, QC, native spent the next two seasons in Bridgeport, developing his skills, confidence and a professional approach to the game. He only saw 11 NHL games over the two seasons, but his persistence and efficient play paid off this fall when he made the Islanders out of training camp. Though the backup role wasn’t his end game, it put him one step closer to his dream. Now, in wake of his strong play this season and an injury to Evgeni Nabokov, Poulin has a chance to pick up where he left off and prove he can be the Islanders number one.
“He’s got an opportunity to play some more games,” head coach Jack Capuano said. “Just knowing him and the way he is, he’s going take this opportunity and make the most of it.”
Even before Nabokov got hurt, Poulin notched some big wins over the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings to earn more starts in net. He appeared in seven of the teams’ first 10 games in November and he’ll likely surpass his previous season-high in games played (10) before Thanksgiving this season.
“This is why you play hockey,” Poulin said. “You want to play more and you want to win.”
Islanders goaltending coach Mike Dunham has watched Poulin’s evolution since his first taste of the big leagues. Dunham is impressed with what he’s seen from the fourth-year pro.
“This year Kevin showed up to training camp in great shape,” Dunham said. “One of his biggest strengths is his quickness and his ability to move around the crease. With him getting stronger it’s made him even quicker. He’s able to recover after saves and that’s really worked out for him.”
Dunham has also seen a change in how Poulin prepares for games and says he’s matured into a professional hockey player.
“This summer he put a lot of concentration into preparing his body to play a lot of games at the professional level,” Dunham said. “A perfect example was (Nov. 16) against Detroit. Nabby unfortunately went down and (Poulin) was ready to play.”
While Poulin is soft-spoken in the dressing room, communication is no issue on the ice. Every goaltender has his own unique style and communicates differently with his defense, which can make goalie changes problematic. But after playing nearly half of the teams’ games this season, both goalie and defense say the adjustment period is over and it’s becoming intuitive.
“The first couple of games it was a little (different) for them, but me as well,” Poulin said. “I’m a little different (than Nabokov), the way I talk, but we got used to communicating and we’re on the same page right now.”
It also helps that six of the younger Islanders, including half of the current d-corps, played with Poulin in Bridgeport last season.
“I have a lot of familiarity with Poulin,” Travis Hamonic, who played in Bridgeport in 2010-11 and for 21 games in 2012-13, said. “As a goalie, he’s a guy that works extremely hard. He never gives up on a play. It’s important, as a defenseman, to have a lot of confidence coming from a goalie like that.”
His best moment of this season came when he stopped all three Red Wings’ shooters, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Todd Bertuzzi, to preserve a 5-4 Islanders win. But Poulin is not one to dwell on past games, good or bad, and is always looking to maintain an even keel and move forward. Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment when the Coliseum is cheering name a big save.
“It’s so loud, how can you not notice it?” Poulin said. “When the crowd is going, it’s a big confidence booster and you feel more comfortable.”
Feeling comfortable and confident, Poulin is ready to seize his opportunity. He’s been waiting three years for it.
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