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Quad-City Mallards goaltender Eric Hartzell watches the game from the tunnel entrance during the first period Wednesday at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline.

Following practice Tuesday afternoon, Eric Hartzell skated back onto the ice at the TaxSlayer Center.

In an undershirt and breezers, a hockey stick in hand, Hartzell was the lone player out there, firing pucks at the net, a brief reprieve from a lifetime of stopping them.

"It's just fun," the Quad-City Mallards goaltender said. "It keeps you young."

That love of the game has kept Hartzell going through the toughest season of his career. The 28-year-old been the team's third goaltender for long stretches, and when he has seen time, he's struggled. Hartzell is just 2-8-0 with the Mallards with a career-worst 4.63 goals against average and a .874 save percentage.

"I would say it's probably been rock bottom as my career goes," the White Bear Lake, Minnesota, native said. "It's the weirdest thing because ... it sounds terrible, but it's the happiest I've ever been. Not because of the way the season has gone in particular but because I have no other choice than to be positive."

That attitude has helped alleviate potential crises that could have arisen. Throughout the worst season in franchise history and quite possibly the last one, Hartzell has been there with an unselfish attitude, focused on doing everything he could to improve himself and the team.

"My whole thing was I wanted to do things right," he said. "I was going to show up for buses, I was going to be on time, I was going to get on the ice 15 minutes early and have a good routine."

Hartzell's season is an anomaly in what started as a very promising career.

In college with Quinnipiac, Hartzell was an All-American and finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the top player in the NCAA. He was named as player of the year by USA Hockey and United States College Hockey Online and was named the Eastern College Athletic Conference's player and goaltender of the year.

He had a two-year NHL contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins coming out of college and served as the team's third goaltender for practices during the Penguins' 2013 Eastern Conference Finals run.

He's played 28 games in the AHL with a career 2.45 goals against average and won the Harry "Hap" Holmes Memorial Award in 2014 as the AHL goaltender with the lowest goals against average. 

In the ECHL, Hartzell won 17 games with the Wheeling Nailers in the 2014-15 season and played five games in the team's seven-game playoff series with Toledo.

"He's a good goalie," head coach Phil Axtell said. "It just takes time to get into a groove for any player."

Since then, it's been hard for Hartzell to find that groove, playing for the Idaho Steelheads and Fort Wayne Komets as well as overseas. He posted a 2.56 goals against average with the Slovakian Nitra MHC team during a run to the finals last year.

For some reason, Hartzell's time in the Quad-Cities has not been as kind.

Hartzell joined the team on Dec. 13, a necessary addition after the Mallards traded Branden Komm a day before Ivan Kulbakov was recalled to the AHL. Initially intended to back up C.J. Motte, Hartzell was suddenly thrust into splitting starting duties when Motte received an AHL call four days later.

It wasn't pretty.

In Hartzell's first eight starts he allowed 42 goals as well as two in three relief appearances.

Despite those struggles, Axtell kept him on the roster, even when Motte and Kulbakov rejoined the team.

"I believed in him. He came in from not playing for two months and was supposed to be a backup," Axtell said. "He’s forced into the fire, and it was tough for him, but I’m glad that he stuck with it and kept practicing and getting better."

Despite all the struggles, all the times he was relegated to the stands, Hartzell's attitude never changed. Neither did the work ethic, and finally he is being rewarded. He's allowed eight goals in his last three starts. He earned his first win of the season on March 24 against the Tulsa Oilers, then won his second game Saturday against the Rapid City Rush.

The win over Tulsa was Hartzell's first ECHL win since Dec. 4, 2016.

"It felt like ages to get that win," Hartzell said. "Obviously, statistically I'm nowhere close to where I'd like to be so for me, again, be a great team guy, do everything I can to stay positive.

Hartzell could have been negative. He could have asked for a trade or demanded more playing time. But he was fine with where he was, with a chance to try and improve.

"He never stopped, he never quit," Axtell said. "It would have been easy to say 'Get me out of here,' like a handful of guys have. He just wants to play hockey. He loves the game."

As Tuesday showed, that love hasn't faded, and Hartzell wants to keep playing next season. The way he handled himself this year will make it easy for Axtell to give him a recommendation if a team asks and the résumé should be intriguing enough for some team to take a chance on.

"I've had a unique career," Hartzell said. "I'm hoping with the work I've been putting in now, the work I'll put in over the summer, somebody gives me an opportunity next year and sees nothing but the best from me."

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Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times