The Plymouth Whaler have all but locked up the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and they can thank one of their star players.
Goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic has been solid between the pipes for the Whalers this season, his second in the OHL, and if it weren't for his play, the Whalers probably would have missed the playoffs for the first time since their inaugural season back in 1990-91 when they were known as the Detroit Ambassadors.
The play of Nedeljkovic, a Parma, Ohio native, hasn't been exactly a secret. Midway through last season, he took the goaltending reins away from Matt Mahalak and turned in a remarkable rookie season by posting a sparkling 19-2-1-1 record with a league-best 2.28 goals against average along with a .923 save percentage and two shutouts.
Nedeljkovic became the third Whaler goalie to win the F. W. "Dinty" Moore Trophy, which goes to the first year goaltender with the best goals against average, as he joined Jason Bacashihua and Michal Neuvirth in taking home the honors. It was the lowest goals against by a rookie since the 2003-04 season when Ryan MacDonald, then with the London Knights, posted a 2.06 goals against average.
Nedejlkovic is one of several Whaler netminders over the last few years have been a part of the "Goalie Factory" as Plymouth has produced several goalies such as Mahalak, Bacashihua, Neuvirth, Scott Wedgewood, Matt Hackett among others, They have all been under the tutelage of the team's goalie coach Stan Matwijiw.
It's not everyday that a rookie goalie takes over the number one spot away from a proven starter, like Mahalak. Nedeljkovic had the poise of a seasoned veteran and the end result of the 2012-13 campaign was that he and his Whaler teammates were three wins away from the OHL Finals.
This season turned out to be different as Nedeljkovic was one of nine returning players from last year's star-studded roster. The first four months of the season were tough for the Whalers as they were on the verge of missing the playoffs. In 56 games this season, Nedeljkovic has a 23-25-0-7 record with a 2.91 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.
With all that aside, the month of February was good to the Whalers, who has jelled to a team that could be in the West Division title mix next season. Nedeljovic has been an insturmental part of the Whalers' playoff push as he posted a 7-2-0-2 record with a microscopic 2.06 goals against average and an incredible .949 save percentage for the month of February. He started off the month of March with a 26-save shutout performance against the Windsor Spitfires. It also marks the first shutout by Nedeljkovic this season.
Players graduating from the junior ranks to the pros is the norm, but the Whalers' roster going into 2013-14 was like something from the movie "Major League." The casual fan would look at their program and the roster and probably ask themselves "Who are these guys?"
In his 56 appearances this season, Nedeljkovic has faced 35 or more shots in 28 of those games. He has spent about 3,194 minutes in goal and has stopped 1,918 shots, which are first in both of those categories, and is second behind Philippe Trudeau of the Ottawa 67's in shots against with 2,073.
With his poise in net and smarts between the ears, Nedejkovic is slated to be one of the first two goalies taken in June's NHL Draft as he's up against Boston College netminder Thatcher Demko for the top honors.
Though the Whaler have almost punched their ticket into the playoffs for the 23rd straight year, they would have to face the Guelph Storm, who are one of the 'big three' in the OHL and Western Conference, in the first round. The Storm has a lot of fire power on offense as they lead the league in scoring with 309 goals. Even though the Storm are the odds-on favorite to take the first round, they could get a scare, mainly because of the play of Nedeljkovic, who could steal a game or two. He could be the round-stealer for the Whalers.
If the series go the distance, it would cement him as the top goalie in the draft and possibly become a first round pick. Not bad for a netminder who is currently in the "Goalie Factory."
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