He started the year with the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League where Alex Nedeljkovic was surrounded by the turmoil that seemed to hover over the team like a thick, dark cloud. Still, the 20-year-old goaltender managed to maintain a 3.21 goals against average and a respectable .907 save percentage in 19 games for the franchise.
It was at the World Junior Championship that Nedeljkovic stood tall for the Americans and really drew the ire of the hockey world. In six games, the Carolina Hurricanes second-round pick delivered with a 1.66 goals against average and a .943 save percentage helping the U.S. to a bronze medal over the high-powered offence of Sweden.
But some might argue that the sample size there is simply too small. And I tend to agree. That however is where his post-tournament play comes into the discussion.
Niagara’s Alex Nedeljkovic
Nedeljkovic was eventually shipped to Niagara and since then has really flourished following the WJC tournament. He finished with 30 games in a Niagara uniform and racked up a 2.72 goals against average while hanging onto his .907 save percentage.
He finished the season with a 2.91 goals against average in 49 games with two shutouts. He faced the fifth most shots during the regular season while only allowing 140 goals against. His 2.91 goals against earned him 16th among goaltenders while 19 of his games were played with a dysfunctional Firebirds franchise.
Not only did Niagara help in his growth as a goaltender, but Nedeljkovic was one of the main reasons why Niagara was able to surge through he playoffs finishing off Kingston and Barrie in eight straight games to earn a spot in the OHL Finals.
Heading into the series, he sits third in goals against average (2.27) with the Knights’ Tyler Parsons one of the two goalies ahead of him. His save percentage sits at .918 and he’s made it hard for opponents to maintain any momentum in games.
While the Knights offence has been relatively unstoppable, Nedeljkovic could very well be the most difficult opponent they’ve taken on this playoffs. So, how will London take advantage of the Hurricane prospect? Patience.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 17, 2016
Knights Must Preach Patience
The thing about all goalies is that they do have their holes – they have their weaknesses. Some like Montreal’s Carey Price tend to be harder to figure out. That’s been the case for the Ice Dogs tender in this year’s playoffs. He’s allowed 31 goals on 380 shots and against some pretty impressive offensive groups.
The Knights will have to play the same kind of game they’ve played all playoffs long. Preaching patience might be the most beneficial advantage for a team that led the OHL in scoring during the regular season.
The Knights will get their opportunities. After all, the Ice Dogs were the seventh most penalized team in the OHL during the regular season and average nearly 12 penalty minutes per game during the postseason. The Knights, well they’ve been able to take advantage of their powerplay opportunities with a success rate of nearly 30 percent.
London reunites its Big Line. Parsons in net. Knights face Nedeljkovic for first time this season.
— Ryan Pyette (@RyanatLFPress) February 4, 2016
Their first unit – Marner, Dvorak and Tkachuk – have combined for 96 points in just 14 games this postseason. They’ve also been the main reason for the team’s success on the powerplay.
While the man advantage will certainly help the Knights, London can’t simply wait for just those opportunities. The Knights will have to take lots of shots on the Niagara net. The Knights are 5-0-0-0 in these playoffs when outshooting their opponent and will have a better chance at tiring out Nedeljkovic.
London will also have to look for Nedeljkovic to go down early. One of the only flaws to his game in the WJC was the way he went down early on some chances. This small flaw may be the chink in the armour of an otherwise very good goaltender. If the Knights can expose this early, they might even be able to get into the head of the net minder and take Niagara off their game.
“They’re a very good defensive hockey team,” said Dvorak on a conference call with the coaches and captains of both teams. “Obviously they have a tremendous goalie. We have to make sure we use our speed and get bodies in front for tips and rebounds.”
Guys like Owen MacDonald, Cliff Pu and Chandler Yakimowicz will also be vital to the Knights’ game if they’re able to stir things up in front of the Niagara net. This may be one of the better third lines in the league and they’ve played a major role in frustrating star players like Dylan Strome in previous series.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.