By Dave Kane – Sports Writer / Taken from The State Journal Register
After spending most of last season as a backup with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the Tier I United States Hockey League, goaltender Evan Fear headed back to Tier II with the North American Hockey League’s Springfield Jr. Blues.
Instead of sulking over what could be considered a demotion, Fear took everything he learned at Dubuque and applied it to his second tour of duty with the Jr. Blues.
It’s been a memorable return to Springfield, with another chapter beginning Friday night in Janesville, Wisconsin.
“I think Evan’s oozing with confidence right now,” said first-year Jr. Blues coach Tyler Renette, who’ll guide the team into a first-round NAHL Robertson Cup playoff series against the Janesville Jets.
“To him, the puck looks like a beach ball coming at him. To me, he’s been the hottest goalie in the league the past month. He’s earned everything he’s gotten. He’s been unbelievable for us down the stretch, and he’ll be starting Friday night.”
The 18-year-old Fear, a Winnetka native, has played a big role as the last line of defense for a Jr. Blues team making its first playoff apperance since 2013.
For the season, Fear has two shutouts and a 2.39 goals-against average. That ranks him in the middle of the NAHL pack.
But Fear was in goal for six of Springfield’s eight straight wins to close the regular season, including two shootout victories in which he stopped all five penalty shots he faced against Janesville on March 28 and the Minnesota Magicians on March 30.
Fear’s backup is rookie Jurja Ovecka, a native of Slovakia who owns the other two victories in the eight-game streak.
“The goaltending position is an interesting one,” Fear said. “There can only be one guy in the net at a time.
“I think I’m playing pretty well at the moment, and I’ll be getting the first chance in the playoffs. But it’s what you do with it, right? If I lay an egg, it’ll be Juri’s chance. It’s our job to compete with each other.”
Fear joined the Jr. Blues late in the 2015-16 season. His best memory from that year was getting to play one game with older brother Erich Fear, a defenseman who spent that one season in Springfield before enrolling at the University of Denver.
Erich was a member of Denver’s NCAA Frozen Four national champions in 2017, although Evan had another commitment that kept him from joining his family to watch Erich and Denver win the Frozen Four at the United Center.
“That was a little bit of a bummer,” Evan said. “We were still in-season, so I wasn’t able to go to Chicago. It was perfect for them. They got to celebrate.”
Fear was still with the USHL Dubuque team at that point. He was the backup goalie, but he still got to play in 16 games. Practice time was equally important in his development.
“The biggest takeaway from that was Matt Millar, the goaltending coach,” Evan said. “He helped me a ton. With four or five practices a week, I got to be on the ice with (Millar) and really work on my game.”
Fear started the next preseason — for the 2017-18 campaign — with Dubuque. But he said a coaching change and his own sub-par play led to him being released.
But the Jr. Blues welcomed back Fear with open arms. Rennette, who was a Jr. Blues assistant to Tony Zasowski last year, knew Fear’s potential.
’“When Dubuque called me and wanted to know if we wanted (Evan) back, I said sure,” Rennette said. “But I told him, ‘I’m not going to just hand you the No. 1 spot. You have to earn it.’
“He came in and really battled for the job.”
Experience on the roster was a priority for Rennette this season as he added older players in hopes of making a push to the playoffs.
“I think there were two points in the regular season where (more experience) was pretty relevant,” said the 18-year-old Fear. “At the start of the year when I came here, there were a lot of teams with young guys and not much experience. That helped us early.
“Then down the stretch, when games got pretty tight with overtimes or shootouts, we’ve been able to control play with our experience — guys who’ve been there before.”
Fear has been there, in both the USHL and the NAHL. Now comes playoff pressure.
“I always get nervous before a game,” Fear said. “There are some butterflies there.
“You have to be excited for the playoffs, but you don’t change your routine too much. We’ve had a lot of success lately. We have to keep playing like we’ve been playing. If we stay confident in ourselves, I think we’ll do pretty well.”
Contact Dave Kane: 788-1544, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/davekaneSJR.