Canada's DiPietro hoping big-game experience leads to world junior spot
Canadian goalie learned to perform under pressure during road to Memorial Cup title
Michael DiPietro didn't feel snubbed by Hockey Canada or let any disappointment linger when left off Canada's 32-player world junior selection camp roster last December.
The Windsor Spitfires goalie also doesn't believe the decision fuelled an uptick in his play as he posted three shutouts in as many games during a road trip the week camp opened.
"I'm always really motivated. I wasn't focused on world juniors at that time. I knew I was definitely a long, long shot [as a 17-year-old]," DiPietro told CBC Sports. "There were a lot of good goalies with a lot more experience than I had.
"Memorial Cup was my next goal after last year's world juniors. I really wanted to win that for my team. It showed everyone what I could do and this season has gone well."
A strong 2016-17 season that culminated in a Cup championship and top goaltender honours is a big reason DiPietro is among 33 hopefuls at this week's world junior camp in St. Catharines, Ont.
Now 18, he is determined to earn one of 22 roster spots, preferably as Canada's starter when it opens the under-20 tournament in Buffalo against Finland on Dec. 26.
"Words can't really describe it," said DiPietro about the possibility of securing the No. 1 role. Three others stand in his way, led by 19-year-old incumbent Carter Hart, a 2016 Philadelphia Flyers draft pick who had mononucleosis earlier this season but has rebounded to post five shutouts and a .961 save percentage in 17 games with Everett of the Western Hockey League.
Rouyn-Noranda Huskies netminder Samuel Harvey, 19, twice has been passed over at the NHL draft but leads the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with a .924 save percentage while six-foot-four, 220-pound Colton Point is the biggest of the goalie candidates. A native of North Bay, Ont., the Colgate goalie tops the NCAA's Eastern College Athletic Conference with a .938 save percentage this season.
From Day 1 this season he has been a different player. He's developed and is a little bit calmer in net.— Windsor Spitfires head coach Trevor Letowski on world junior hopeful Michael DiPietro
The plan is for all four to split time during Canada's exhibition games against U SPORTS, or Canadian university all-stars, on Wednesday and Thursday at the Meridian Centre.
While DiPietro's .917 save percentage is identical as last year and ranks third among all Ontario Hockey League goalies, the native of Amherstburg, Ont., (near the Windsor/Detroit border) feels he has made strides since the Vancouver Canucks drafted him in the third round in June.
"There's a lot to like," said Spitfires head coach Trevor Letowski, who was added to Canadian world junior bench boss Dominique Ducharme's staff this year. "From Day 1 this season [DiPietro] has been a different player. He's developed and is a little bit calmer in net. His puckhandling, which you could say was a weakness last year, is pretty good."
During the off-season, DiPietro worked with Canucks goalie coach Dan Cloutier and Perry Wilson in Windsor on his movement in the net and post protection on wraparounds and when opposing players drive the net to stuff the puck. While not a scout's dream in terms of size, the six-foot DiPietro has been more mindful this season in attempting to remain on his feet longer and not commit to the butterfly.
"My tracking has also really improved on pucks coming into my body, pucks going out and with rebounds," said DiPietro, whose 2.67 goals-against average is fourth in the OHL. "The Canucks told me to push across the crease faster, not have my drag leg dragging and when the puck comes off me to get square again and not delay."
DiPietro considered his Memorial Cup performance a turning point. He fashioned a .939 save percentage in winning three straight games and carrying Windsor to the final where he turned aside 32 shots to lead the tourney hosts to a 4-3 win over OHL rivals Erie in the Canadian Hockey League championship.
DiPietro is no stranger to excelling on the big stage, having led Canada to a gold medal at the Canada Winter Games in March 2015. He also logged a tournament-leading 308 minutes over seven days (1.75 GAA, .929 save percentage) at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge that November. Last month, he made 23 saves for the OHL all-stars in a 4-2 win over Russia in their Super Series.
'Hates to be scored on'
"I think the higher the stakes, the hungrier I am. I learned [at the Memorial Cup] that I can really perform under pressure," said DiPietro, whose reaction time and flexibility set him apart from the competition. "I hate to get outworked and I refuse to get outworked. My dad has always told me that nothing's ever given in life, that it's earned. I took it to heart and ran with it."
DiPietro is a pro in his demeanour and mentality, according to Letowski, a former Canucks right-winger who played 616 NHL regular-season games.
"In practice is where it stands out," the coach said. "He hates to be scored on, which is great when you're relentless with that compete level. That's an intangible that usually translates to being a great pro.
"I thought the Russia game was a big viewing for him. It was a one-game situation, and he answered the bell and played great. He certainly has experience in the big games that you like for these [world junior] tournaments."