(Festarini photo courtesy Joel Smith Photography)

Niagara IceDogs goaltender Chris Festarini knows he has some big skates to fill upon taking over the starting role from Mark Visentin this season.

After spending the majority of 2011-12 backing up for one of the league’s most respected goalies, Festarini has some high expectations of himself heading into his first season as a number one netminder in the OHL.

“I’ve set a lot of goals for myself,” said the ’93-born Oakville native. “Taking over for Visser, I know I’ve got some big shoes to fill, so I just want to help my team win games and play to the best of my ability like he did last year.”

And playing to the best of his ability is exactly what the IceDogs’ coaching staff expects of him as well.

“He doesn’t have to be Mark Visentin. He just has to be himself and be the best he can be,” said Niagara’s goaltending coach, Ben Vanderklok. “If he does that, he has the capability of being a quality OHL goalie and a solid number one for our team.”

Although Festarini saw limited action last season playing behind Visentin, getting an opportunity to learn from a two-time Canadian World Junior goaltender and first round NHL pick is something not every OHLer has the privilege of experiencing.

“You can’t even explain how valuable it was for Chris to come in last year and not just see Mark play, but room with him on the road and learn from him,” Vanderklok said. “They were very close and shared lots of stories and experiences, so Mark was a great role model in that respect.

“When you look at Chris’ pre-game routine and his dynamic warm up where he gets to the rink early and gets dialed in for the game, a lot of that came from spending time with Mark and using Mark as an example.”

Along with using those examples set by Visentin to develop his own game, Vanderklok expects Festarini to pass on those lessons and skills to IceDogs’ rookie goaltender, Brent Moran.

“They seem to be getting along great and it’s the same idea with these two - they’ll room together on the road and Brent needs to be a sponge and soak it all in,” he said.

While the new leading role will undoubtedly come with its added responsibilities and pressures, Vanderklok says it’s important for Festarini to remain focused on the task at hand and recognize his day-to-day routine will be a lot different now.

“This year, the focus is being able to play night in and night out, leaving the good and bad behind you and not getting too high or too low,” he cautioned. “There’s going to be bumps in the road, we all know that, it’s how we respond to those bumps that will determine if he has a good year, a great year or an average year.”

So far, Festarini has responded well to the challenge, leading Niagara to back-to-back wins while posting a 1.44 goals against average and .952 save percentage in his first two starts – a feat that doesn’t surprise Vanderklok in the least.

“When we picked Chris up last year, I believed he really could be the guy for us down the road,” he said. “He’s put a lot of work in to get himself here and I’m glad he’s had a good start to the season, but we have over 60 games left to play.”

Festarini knows the team is counting on him to elevate his game to a whole new level this year and recognizes some areas in which he can continue to improve on as the season progresses.

“I want to improve on my puck handling, so that’s something I’m working on a lot in practice,” he said. “Other than that, just being a consistent goaltender. Benny has talked about that a lot with me, so I need to be ready to go game in and game out.”

Luckily for him, Vanderklok’s coaching experience and attention to detail should make the adjustment that much easier.

“I’ve worked with Benny for over a year now and he pushes me hard and he’s teaching me new things every single day,” Festarini said. “He’s really helped me better my game, which also helps better the team.”

While there’s certainly still a lot of work to be done in order to maintain the success Festarini has had early in the season, Vanderklok says the work they put in during the off-season will, slowly but surely, begin to pay dividends.

“We addressed a lot of the areas over the summer in terms of playing with control, his tracking, his speed and explosiveness, while also maintaining his technique and his form, and he’s gotten much better with it all,” Vanderklok said. “He’s never had an opportunity like this before, so it’s an unknown for us and an unknown for him. As a coaching staff, we believe he is capable of giving us what we need out of him.”


The Skinny:

Chris Festarini

Height: 6’2”

Weight: 190 pounds

Hometown: Oakville, Ont.

Born: June 3, 1993

OHL Experience: 49 games played from 2009-12, 22-18-0 record, 2 shutouts.


Vanderklok on Festarini:

“His work ethic is unbelievable. He’s always battling and always putting in the extra time and effort. He’s often coming to me, asking when we’re going to go over video or if there’s extra ice time available, so that shows a lot about how dedicated he is; he won’t leave any stone unturned that might help his development.”

“He’s worked a lot on his technique, but at the same time, I joke with him that he’s got a bulldog mentality and he does a good job of recognizing when he can have a normal type of recovery and when it’s time to be desperate. When it comes down to it, he really just battles away and finds a way to stop the puck. It’s not always the prettiest, but he finds a way to keep the net empty.”