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Barrie goalie brings quirkiness to the crease; Colts host Niagara Saturday at BMC

By Gene Pereira, Special to Postmedia Network

Since coming over from the Ottawa 67’s, goaltender Leo Lazarev has the helped the Barrie Colts turn around their fortunes following a terrible 2016-17 season. The Russian netminder has a 2.92 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 12 games heading into Friday night’s action in Sudbury. KEVIN LAMB/PHOTO

Since coming over from the Ottawa 67’s, goaltender Leo Lazarev has the helped the Barrie Colts turn around their fortunes following a terrible 2016-17 season. The Russian netminder has a 2.92 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 12 games heading into Friday night’s action in Sudbury. KEVIN LAMB/PHOTO

The buzzer went off to end the period, but Leo Lazarev had some important business to take care of first before he headed across the ice to the dressing room.

The Barrie Colts goaltender turned to face the net and started talking to it.

One would assume it was a one-way conversation, but whatever was said, be it words of encouragement or an expression of appreciation, Lazarev wants to keep the discussion close to the vest.

And why not, because it’s certainly working for him.

“It’s my thing,” the 20-year-old said of the ritual.

When play resumed the next period, it wasn’t long before play is whistled down for an offside. Not one to sit parked in his crease, Lazarev is on the move. Off he heads toward the corner, both arms rotating like a windmill.

The Russian-born goalie makes the Energizer Bunny look like he needs a recharge by comparison.

Watching his offbeat antics is worth the price alone, let alone how well Lazarev has played since arriving in Barrie in a trade with the Ottawa 67’s before the start of this season.

Asked if he’s wondered what his goalie is up to at times out there, Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk nearly pleads the fifth.

“I don’t watch him,” Hawerchuk said, before laughing out loud.

“I think everybody in life has got superstitions, routines,” the Colts head coach added. “When things are going well they want to stick to it. He’s definitely one of those guys you watch in between whistles to see what he’s going to do next.”

There’s little doubt Lazarev has a special relationship with his net. He figures treat the net well and it’ll return the favour.

Many a time he’ll go through the same routine of tapping the posts with his goalie stick.

“A little bit. Sometimes,” he admitted. “If it helps, I’m going to do it.”

Hawerchuk has seen this many times before, especially from goaltenders. The Hall of Famer, who had a stop with the Philadelphia Flyers in his storied NHL career still recalls watching Ron Hextall go through his routines.

“Ron Hextall use to tap the posts in a certain way,” said Hawerchuk, whose club hosts the Niagara IceDogs on Saturday night at the Barrie Molson Centre. “Now everybody has their own little thing. With Leo, I get a kick out of him when he’s sort of shuffling those shoulders, elbows out, getting ready.

“He does what he thinks he needs to do to be ready.”

Lazarev has certainly been ready this season. He’s been real good, asserting himself as the starting goaltender quickly in Barrie, leading the OHL club to deal away returning starter Christian Propp to the North Bay Battalion last month.

The overage goalie, who spent three years with Ottawa, finds himself among the league leaders in wins with an 8-3-1 record, while posting a 2.92 goals-against average and save percentage of .906 in 12 games this season.

All this energy, passion is just part of his game, he explained. At five-foot-10 and 161-pounds, Lazarev knows he’s not the biggest goalie and it’s important that he proves himself with his quickness and a ton of energy.

That he’s having fun while he’s at it, he believes can only help his teammates.

“If everybody sees you’re happy, the people around you feed off your energy and it’s kind of fun when you do some funny stuff and everyone around you smiles,” he said. “It’s good fun and energy and it helps us to win games.”

Hawerchuk can see it rub off on the team. The Colts, he says, have gained a lot of confidence from Lazarev’s good start with them.

“I think our guys really enjoy (his passion), but you’ve got to back that up too, right?,” he explained. “He has done that, so he’s gained a lot of respect that way.”

With Propp gone and rookie Kai Edmonds backing him up, Lazarev is certain to get the big work load he craves.

He had got into more than 40 games with the 67’s each of the last two seasons, but with a loaded crease and the rebuild on in the Nation’s Capital, Ottawa couldn’t promise him the bulk of starts.

With a young Colts team hoping to take a step up to being a contender in the Eastern Conference, they looked to solidify their goaltending and brought in the veteran.

“He’s got no fear, that’s for sure,” Hawerchuk, whose club kicked off weekend on the road Friday in Sudbury, said of Lazarev. “He wants to get better all the time. He’s got a great work ethic that way and he’s got a lot of passion for it.”

“He’s smaller, but he doesn’t play real small,” the coach added. “With his athleticism he really tries to work on the angles and moves from there, and really relies on his quickness.”  

Lazarev is never afraid to come out and challenge shooters. Few do it better in the OHL. It makes him a bigger goalie out there and it plays a big part in his success.

“The main thing is to stop the puck. It doesn’t matter how, you just stop it,” the Moscow native said. “If you’re a big goalie you can play your angles and go down, but that doesn’t work for me. I have to move in a split second. It’s all I have, speed.”

“For sure I take care of my angles and I don’t have to move so much,” Lazarev added. “When I come out a little bit farther than other goalies, it helps sometimes because the main thing is my speed.

“I can go far, I can back in the net and just keep moving back and forth. It’s kind of the style of my game.”

Lazarev arrived in Canada in August of 2013 on the advice of his advisor, former Detroit Red Wings great Igor Larinov.

With the Canadian Hockey League passing a new rule that would not allow teams to draft import goalies, Lazarev and his family, believing it was the best route to his dream of playing in the NHL, moved to Canada.

With his father, Slava, mother, Anna, and younger sister, Jessie, they went to Waterloo where he would play a Jr. B season with the Waterloo Siskins of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League before being drafted by Ottawa in the second-round in 2014.

Lazarev hasn’t taken for granted what his parents did to help him chase his hockey dream. Having them here also made adjusting to a new country and culture that much easier.

“They’ve helped so much,” he said.

Lazarev said he could have stayed in Russia and played in the junior league there and for the national teams, but he knew coming here was the best thing for him.

“The CHL, OHL is the best league in the world for under-21 players,” he said. “I played against Connor McDavid in my first year, against Dylan Strome and now they are in the NHL.

“It’s fun to play against those guys and I think it’s the best way and the hardest way for a goalie from a foreign country to go.”

While he’d love to earn a pro contract, his focus now remains on helping the Colts win hockey games. As for the conversations with his net, those will continue if things keep going well.

The net must be listening, because it certainly seems to be working.

“I hope so,” Lazarev said. 

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