Quad-City Mallards coach Terry Ruskowski didn't get a lot of sleep between Games 4 and 5 of the Central Hockey League playoffs.
With the series tied 2-2, he was struggling with a pivotal decision leading up to a pivotal game — who to start in net, the young, flashy Ty Rimmer or the older, more experienced Thomas Heemskerk.
"Usually you have a gut feeling and I just thought, they’re both good goalies," Ruskowski said. "What do I do here?"
It was a difficult decision. Rimmer had fallen victim to defensive lapses in a Game 1 loss, summoning Heemskerk, who won Games 2 and 3 before being undone by a poor team effort in a loss in Game 4.
Needing help, Ruskowski brought in his captains to ask for their opinion and when they couldn't help him, he decided to ask the two goalies what they thought he should do.
"They said, ‘you know what, whoever plays, that’s OK. It’s the playoffs and we want to win,'" Ruskowski said. "I’m going, ‘wow, what a great attitude.’"
Rimmer got the start and was stellar in a Game 5 win, but the attitude displayed by both goalies is remarkable. Both goalies are capable of being No. 1 options for most teams and have shown the ability to play at the next level with both receiving call-ups to the American Hockey league. Both are extremely competitive, but have refused to let any animosity enter their locker room.
"I guess it’s something new, maybe for both of us, but you kind of realize as a pro it’s not always the older guy or the guy who’s playing better,'' Heemskerk said. "It is what it is, and maybe because we push each other, maybe years down the road it really helped us both develop."
All season, this dynamic led to success for both goaltenders. Heemskerk and Rimmer entered the playoffs as the only goaltenders in the league who ranked in the top 10 in goals against and save percentage.
Now, in the playoffs, where it is typical for teams to ride one goaltender to triumph or failure, Ruskowski has maintained a "win and stay in'' philosophy. So when Rimmer lost in Game 1, he rode the bench until Heemskerk dropped Game 4.
"I was the team's biggest cheerleader," Rmmer said. "We've kind of gone with a rotation all year and it's playoff hockey. Whoever's winning is going to keep playing. Thomas was playing some great hockey and won us some games and now it's my turn."
The attitude is noticeable in the locker room and has gone a long way to building what Ruskowski has referred to at times as the closest locker room he's coached.
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"They’re both great professionals," defenseman Nicholas Rioux said. "They know what to do. Obviously they both want to win and what they want is the best for the team. As long as we win, everybody’s happy."
Rimmer is now poised to get the start in Game 6 tonight while Heemskerk will try to stay engaged in the series, ready to take over if needed.
"You’ve got to take it upon yourself to work hard in practice, not get down, you never know what happens," Heemskerk said. "It’s just the way it is but you take it upon yourself to stay late or work hard in practice, pay attention during video. Everyone knows the situation and it doesn’t change much for the team. Just stay with the guys and stay positive."
With three games this series having been won by a goaltender who didn't see the ice in the previous game, Rimmer won't be surprised to find himself riding pine before the season is over.
"I have a feeling before the end, we'll both be in the net," he said. "If that's what it takes to win a championship, I know Thomas and myself are all in."