Why Alex Nedeljkovic still feels he has something to prove to Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Free Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — Alex Nedeljkovic is finishing this season the way he began it: Feeling like he has something to prove.

The Detroit Red Wings goalie enters the season’s final two weeks coming off a restorative 46-save shutout against one of the NHL’s elite teams, with bonus satisfaction from it coming against his former team. The Carolina Hurricanes are where Nedeljkovic and the Wings would like to be — in the playoffs — but that doesn’t diminish Thursday’s 3-0 victory.

“It’s a learning process,” Nedeljkovic said. “We had high expectations for ourselves. If you’re (not) setting high goals, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Our goal was to make the playoffs and to be a competitive team, and we fell short of that goal. But there’s still a lot to prove. Every day you come to the rink, you have something to prove, whether it’s to yourself, your teammates, the coaching staff, the general manager — whoever. You never know who’s watching.”

General manager Steve Yzerman was watching Thursday from the press box at PNC Arena. He stamped the move to acquire Nedeljkovic last summer, and then signed him for two years at $3 million a season.

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The victory improved Nedeljkovic to 19-21-9 with three shutouts, a 3.27 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage. He has started 48 games and appeared in 54, more than was  tentatively planned before the season.

“But it’s the way it’s worked out because of injuries and play and a lot of different factors,” coach Jeff Blashill said. 

The Wings’ other goalie to start the season, Thomas Greiss, struggled, and then he suffered a concussion. Third-stringer Calvin Pickard also got hurt on March 27. That prompted the Wings to look for help, and they found someone they liked in Magnus Hellberg, a Swedish goaltender who was playing in the KHL. Hellberg, a second-round pick (No. 38 overall) by the Nashville Predators in 2011, went 13-20-4 with five shutouts, a 2.42 GAA and a .917 save percentage with Sochi HC. Immigration issues delayed his arrival until this week.

“There was a rumor going around he was going to join us, and I think there were visa issues,” Nedeljkovic said. “It’ll be good. It’s always good to have some competition.”

The Wings need a second goalie for next season, as Greiss isn’t expected to return. Nedeljkovic had his own struggles this season —he posted a 4.06 GAA and .883 save percentage during a 10-game stretch from Feb. 13-March 21 — but he has a .925 save percentage since the start of April.

“He’s continued to work and he’s continued to be solution-based and grind and find ways to get out of this,” Blashill said. “He’s worked with Jeff Salajko, our goalie coach, hard, put lots of time in. And I also think he hasn’t gotten too down on himself, and that’s important. He’s got a self-belief that’s there and self-belief is critical when you go through struggles.”

Nedeljkovic’s first shutout, on Jan. 15 against the Buffalo Sabres, ended a four-game losing streak; his second, March 17 on the road against the Vancouver Canucks, ended a six-game skid. This time, the losing streak was only two.

“When you’re getting that kind of goaltending, it just gives you way more confidence and it allows you not to have those poor momentum swings,” Blashill said. “You make mistakes and nobody thinks much of it because the goalie makes the big save. Ultimately, the best eraser out there is the goalie.”

Nedeljkovic, 26, has the mental fortitude needed to tend goal in Detroit. His workload has been heavy — he ranks in the top 10 in the NHL in ice time, with 2,972:31 — but he has embraced it.

“It’s been a great opportunity to play a lot of games,” Nedeljkovic said. “Not a lot of guys get to do that. Would I like to have been a little bit more consistent, a little bit better overall, absolutely. But it’s part of learning, part of playing the game. There are eight games left, I’ve got however many to prove that I can put together good, solid games over a period of time.

“You don’t get to do this for a long time. It’s about treasuring the moment.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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