If the Arizona Coyotes are the most surprising team in the NHL this season, then rookie goaltender Louis Domingue must be the most unlikely, under-the-radar success story of the year.
For those who don't recognize the name, Domingue is a 23-year-old from Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, a province that used to supply goaltenders to the NHL the way GM produced cars. It was a factory and Domingue actually played for the most influential of them all, Patrick Roy, for three seasons in junior.
But Domingue had an uneven relationship with Roy; he doesn't like to talk about those years and, as a point of fact, found the confidence and swagger needed to be an NHL goalie in the most unlikely of places – Duluth, Ga., where, for parts of three seasons, he played for the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL.
Domingue is having a right-place, right-time kind of season, getting promoted from the Coyotes' minor-league affiliate in Springfield, Mass., in mid-December when Mike Smith, the Arizona starter, required abdominal surgery, which will sideline him for 10 weeks.
In Domingue's first start, he earned a shutout against the New York Islanders, and it has been onward and upward ever since. He is 8-4-3 in 15 appearances this year, with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage, effectively winning the job ahead of veteran backup Anders Lindback.
Arizona plays its final game before the all-star break Tuesday night in Winnipeg and will go into the stretch drive in February with a legitimate chance at making the playoffs, after missing them by miles a year ago.
"He's steadied a ship when we weren't sure which way we were going," Coyotes' coach Dave Tippett assessed. "When Mike went down, we went back and forth between the two guys a little bit, with a little bit of mixed results. Then [Domingue] had two or three real strong games so we decided we're just going to let him run with it and see how it goes. And he's been solid. He's had no real poor games and he's had a couple in the middle, but his very good games have really helped us."
Getting to the NHL as a goalie requires skill, opportunity and often more patience than many netminding prospects are prepared to show. Most NHL teams annually turn over about 20 per cent of their roster, so there are always openings for position players every year.
But sometimes it can be a longer wait for goaltenders, knowing there are only 30 starting jobs – and once a player gets established as a starter, he is often difficult to dislodge at the top of the pecking order. Domingue understands how that works – and when the opportunity to climb the ladder presents itself, you need to seize the moment.
"I got my chance this year," Domingue said. "I could have dropped it or I could have made the most of it. It only happens once; or if you're lucky, maybe twice, but you have to grab it when it's there."
As recently as this summer, Domingue was contemplating playing in Europe because the Coyotes wouldn't offer him a one-way contract after he made a handful of appearances as Smith's backup last season. But when his European option evaporated, Domingue circled back to the Coyotes and signed the contract that he'd originally rejected.
According to Tippett, the Coyotes got "a little bit of a glimpse of [Domingue] last year and he was all right.
"He was a young guy. You can never have your team say, 'Hey, look at you, you're not working.' There were a couple of instances where he had to learn that a little bit and he's learned it and he's come back and he's been a real solid guy for us."
"I definitely knew I could play in this league," Domingue said, "but I didn't think I could do that right away. But as the season started in the American League and taking over the number-one role down there, I kind of got my rhythm. I told myself I could be consistent in my game because that's what a number-one goalie does – he plays with consistency."
And while the Coyotes are further ahead than anyone expected this year, their future is still a couple of years away, when the likes of Dylan Strome crack the roster, and Max Domi and Anthony Duclair get more meaningful experience.
But they are hanging in the playoff race, against long odds, and Domingue may have staked his claim to the starting job, even after Smith returns next month.
"We have such a good mix of younger and older guys that fit well together," Domingue said. "The young guys are understanding the system and they're doing it well. That's important because Tippett has experience and he knows how to implement a good system; and he's proven, if you follow it, we're going to have success."