SUNRISE, Fla. – There is no denying that hockey players are not your average athletes.
They play a high-speed game, trapped in a box, chasing a frozen chunk of rubber around while trying to hit it with long, metal sticks.
Believe it or not, it's even better than it sounds.
Hockey players are tough, famous for playing through lost teeth, multiple stitches and countless other injuries that would have most athletes taking the rest of the night off.
Not hockey players.
They're cut from a different cloth.
They are also very real. Down to earth in ways that have endeared them to fans for over a century, creating a bond quite unique in professional sports.
That distinctive nature was apparent in the best of ways on Saturday night in Sunrise, Florida.
Young, journeyman goaltender Chris Driedger had just completed his first NHL start, called up days earlier by the Florida Panthers.
Forget about trying to act poised or look cool.
Driedger allowed himself to live in the moment, and it was refreshing to see.
The veteran of 383 games between the WHL, ECHL and AHL had just three NHL appearances under his belt, but none since Oct. 28, 2016, and no starts.
"I was pretty nervous today, before the game," he admitted. "I was kinda in my own head this morning, and then the puck drops and you feel good."
For Driedger, the focus was on keeping things simple. Stop the next shot. Get the win.
The gravity of the situation, with Florida having lost three straight games, probably didn't weigh as heavily on Driedger as it would for starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
"I just kind of pretended like it was a game in the American League, and things ended up going well," Driedger said. "My coaches always say build your game, so I try to just make a couple saves to start off, and just kind of went with it after that."
Oh, he went with it all right.
A night that started with the 25-year-old hoping to get his feet underneath him ended with Driedger looking up to the rafters of the BB&T Center, his goalie gloves on his head.
Not only had Driedger just won his first start in the National Hockey League, but he did so without giving up a single goal.
With three years passing between NHL appearances, not knowing if he'd ever get back to the show, one can only imagine the feelings, the thoughts, the sensations being enjoyed by Driedger in that moment.
"This is pretty surreal right now, I’m kind of cloud nine-ing," he said after the game. "It’s just unbelievable. My family was able to make it out, too, so that just makes it even more special.
"Honestly, I’m speechless at this point. It’s been a long time coming."
Soak it in, young man.
To his credit, Driedger looked the part of an NHL goalie.
He was focused, sharp, controlled and poised. There were no wasted movements, no misplays with the puck.
“I thought he was great, very composed," said Panthers coach Joel Quenneville. "His composure was terrific. Patient, and waited on pucks. He was smooth; when I say smooth, there were no rebounds. He was covering them if there were any. I thought he moved well and followed the puck. He did a lot of real good things. Happy for him."
Quenneville wouldn’t say whether Driedger had earned himself another start when Florida hosts the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. Q simply flashed a grin and gave a “we’ll see” when asked.
CHASING THE GOOSE EGG
Driedger admitted that during the game, he was trying not to think about the possibility of picking up a shutout.
"I looked up, and was like 'Okay Chris, don’t think about the shutout, don’t jinx it,'" he said. "But I don’t think I had a tough save in the third period. These guys did an incredible job, so, hats off to them."
Indeed, Florida played one of its best defensive games of the season, and they appeared to get better as the night progressed.
Driedger was forced to make nine saves during the third period, but Florida's defense made sure none were from 'high danger' areas, clearing shooting lanes and making sure their goaltender could see every puck.
You better believe the Panthers wanted to get Driedger the shutout.
"When you have an opportunity going into a third (period) or at the end of games like that, and you have that chance, that's the main concern, making sure that you don't give up anything that would cause a goal against," Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman said of securing the clean sheet. "We played a really good third period. We didn't back off too much, we still kept going offensively, and that's how you play in the third period."
Added Driedger: “It was incredible. Every shot that I saw, I could save. If I didn’t see them, they blocked them. It was awesome. They did an incredible job in front of me. You wouldn’t be asking these questions if it wasn’t for them.”