In a short 18-game NLL season, one start can potentially change a career. But, sometimes a great start isn’t enough, the timing also needs to be right. Nearly two weeks ago, Vancouver Stealth practice-roster goaltender, Eric Penney, stepped in net to replace his struggling teammates, Tye Belanger and Brodie Macdonald, to lead the Stealth to their first victory of the season behind his 52-save (83 save %) night after the team started the season 0-4.
Because of his heroics against the Buffalo Bandits which helped propel his team to an 11-10 overtime win inside the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, Penney has earned (at least for the moment) the starting job in net for the Stealth.
In preparation for their back-to-back games this weekend against the Colorado Mammoth and Georgia Swarm respectively, Stealth head coach Jamie Batley said, “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we’re starting Penney on Friday night.”
Since becoming a professional lacrosse player in 2013 when he was drafted in the fifth round (38th overall) by the Buffalo Bandits, Penney has always played the role of backup or backup to the backup whether he was in Buffalo or Vancouver.
Being selected by the Bandits at that time meant he would watch one of the greatest NLL goaltenders the game has ever seen, Anthony Cosmo, start in net. When he was traded to the Stealth in 2014, he would again find himself behind another long time great goaltender in Tyler Richards.
“He just hasn’t really had the chance to get in the net,” Batley explained about Penney’s few starting chances in net over the years. “Tyler Richards was our goalie, and then Tye Belanger came in and did what he did last year, so it never really gave Eric an opportunity.”
It was tough for Penney to not participate in a single game in Buffalo or to be left off the Stealth’s roster last season. “Obviously you don’t want to be sitting on the bench or watching from the stands.” Penney stated, “But, you’re going to be fighting back and trying to get that #1 position and get on the active roster.”
When Penney has been called on, though, he has come up big on certain occasions. During the 2015 campaign, he stopped 50+ goals twice including an unbelievable 59-save performance on the road against the New England Black Wolves.
The 24-year-old goaltender -he was just 21 when coming to the Stealth- was always ready to learn and soak up whatever he could. “I take feedback from anyone I played with or played against,” Penney said earlier this week. “A lot of the veteran guys, they give great input. Any information I get, I take in and do my best to use it.”
For the most part throughout his non-professional playing career, Penney was a starting goaltender whether it was in the Ontario Junior-A Lacrosse League (OJALL) or the Western Lacrosse Association (WLA).
When he was part of the Brampton Excelsiors in 2011, and then with the St. Catharines Athletics from 2012-2014, Penney was the go-to keeper. He continued to collect many starts in senior ball when he was with the New Westminster Salmonbellies and then the Burnaby Lakers as well.
In the Summer of 2015, Penney stooped 82.9% of the shots that came his way -his play helped the Salmonbellies reach the WLA Finals that year. This past summer, Penney’s WLA-leading 85.6 save % and 7.02 GAA earned him the Leo Nicholson Memorial Trophy for Outstanding Goaltender. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they were ousted in the semi-finals despite Penney’s efforts.
Penney admits that he was working on certain aspects of his game to play at the level he did throughout last year’s WLA season and his first start of the 2018 NLL season.
“I’ve been working on a few different things,” Penney says. “One big thing I’ve been working on is tracking the ball coming in, so, not just guesswork; actually seeing the ball come in and react to it. And, another thing I was told over the offseason, when I was getting some coaching from Batley, was to step out and challenge shooters. I practiced all of that throughout the summer and training camp, so when it came to the game against Buffalo, I was trying to implement all of that.”
So far everything seems to be working for Penney. He knew that his number might be called on and he felt a responsibility to step up for his team. “When you’re called upon at any time, you have to be ready to go.” He said.
It’s too early to tell if Penney will remain the Stealth’s goaltender for the remainder of the season. It will all depend on if he stays hot.
“We have to go with whoever is hot,” Batley said. “That’s what we did last year, and that’s what I’ve always done. A lot of teams have traditions #1’s and #2’s, and we’ve not had that since I came to Vancouver. Some guys will come in for a month or two, and we’ll roll with it, but, we’re not going to stick with a guy if he’s not hot and they understand that.”
The Stealth have been in this situation before where they’ve been in need of a turnaround and have made a significant change in goal. Just last season, after the Stealth lost three straight games in the first month of the year, they replaced Richards for Belanger. Following the team’s four losses in a row this season, it would be hard to see Penney lose the starting gig after Belanger and MacDonald have already tried and been unsuccessful this season.
Penney has always wanted to be a #1 goalie in the NLL, and he has no plans to surrender the spot. “Anywhere in this league you want to be on the #1 list.” Penney said. “I’m just gonna keep working at it, stay healthy, and no matter where it happens to be, be the #1.”