Ask Jamestown Ironmen head coach Dan Daikawa what goaltender Joe Ballmer brings to the team, and he doesn't hesitate.
It's clear he's kidding, of course - though Daikawa's deadpan delivery is perfect - but the joke itself is telling. It's the kind saved for a player whose importance is actually the exact opposite; saved for a player who some might even go so far as to call, indispensable.
After a laugh, just so as to let everyone within earshot know for sure he's kidding, Daikawa gets serious.
"I thought he was the best goalie in the country last year, and he's right back there (again)."
Few, it's sad to say, have ever had that kind of confidence in the 20-year-old netminder over the course of his career.
- - -
Ballmer, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., in his final year of eligibility with the North American Hockey League, was nothing short of outstanding between the pipes Friday in Ironmen's 7-1 drubbing of the visiting Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings during semifinal-round action of the North American Hockey League playoffs.
Among the many highlights was his poke-check, breakaway save three minutes into the contest when the K-Wings, momentarily at least, had the second-seeded Ironmen on their heels; there was his diving glove save late in the first period; there were kick saves and blocker saves and there was the stop - probably his best of the evening - he made on a K-Wings two-on-none breakaway midway through the third.
He made 33 saves in all, and kept his opponents off the scoreboard for 26 minutes, 39 seconds before allowing his lone blemish. But by then it didn't even matter - the Ironmen's lead simply diminished from a comfortable seven goals to similarly ample six.
"We needed him to be a big part of our win to start the playoff series," Daikawa said, "and he played well tonight. He gave us an opportunity right from the start when (Kalamazoo) came out flying and he shut them down until we could get our feet underneath us. We really rode his saves early."
Not only was it Ballmer's first playoff victory in NAHL play, but it was the first for the Ironmen franchise as well. Only fitting, considering Ballmer secured the Ironmen's first-ever victory last year as well.
His stat line in that contest? Thirty-three stops against 34 shots.
"That's kind of nice," Ballmer said Friday with a smile. "Hopefully I can be the goalie that brings home the (franchise's) first Robertson Cup, too."
- - -
That he could find himself uttering lines about winning NAHL playoff and even title games would surprise many, Ballmer says. In fact, when it came to hockey, nobody ever really thought he'd amount to much of anything.
Nobody except himself, of course.
"Growing up I was the underdog," he explained. "No one really believed in me, and that's what keeps me going. My whole life I've been told, 'You can't do it.'
"My entire life, people have told me that I wasn't good enough. So I remind myself of that every game."
It's a reminder that's served him well over the course of his career, but especially since being traded back to the Ironmen (he'd been playing in the United States Hockey League for the Sioux City Muskateers) in early February ahead of the squad's playoff push.
"(The Muskateers) were essentially out of the playoffs so we had some conversations and we were fortunate enough to get him back," Daikawa said.
For his part, Ballmer notes he was thrilled to hear the news he was returning to Western New York.
"I knew I was coming back to a great team," he said. "At the end of the day, I love Jamestown. I love it here, it's awesome, and it just feels good to be liked here."
Since returning, Ballmer has compiled a 9-5-0 record with a 2.34 goals-against average and a similarly solid .920 save percentage.
Added Daikawa, "It's really good to have him back."
Jamestown fans undoubtedly share Daikawa's sentiments.
- - -
Jamestown returns to the ice at the Jamestown Savings Bank Ice Arena at 5 p.m., today, looking to take a two-game lead in the best-of-five series. Following that game, it's off to Kalamazoo for the pivotal, and possible series-deciding, contest on Wednesday.
With No. 29 in the nets, and an offense that seems to be humming, Daikawa likes their chances.
"(Joe) is giving us an opportunity to win the game," he said. "That's what he brings to the table, no matter what, and in the end, he's doing what we're asking and he's going to give not only himself opportunities to move on (in his hockey career), but also give us an opportunity to move on (in the playoffs)."
Ballmer thinks the Ironmen are playing their best hockey yet.
"We're playing our best hockey," he said. "There's a lot of guys, like me, who are in their last year (before aging out of the NAHL), so we've got a let's-win-this-thing kind of mentality."