At one point in his career, Zach Fucale was a top goaltending prospect with a bright future.
Nearly a decade later, those expectations never really took him that far. But on Thursday, Fucale became just the 10th goalie over the past 25 years to earn a shutout in their NHL debut with a 2-0 win over Detroit.
Any time a goalie wins their first game is special. But in Fucale's case, it almost looked destined to never happen for the 26-year-old.
At one point in time, the second-round pick by Montreal in 2013 was turning heads thanks to an impressive junior hockey career with Halifax and Quebec. Fucale did something that so few 16-year-old goaltenders have done in major junior: started over 55 games. He played 58 of the team's 68 outings in 2011-12 before putting up some incredible numbers in Halifax the following two years. Fucale won the Memorial Cup with Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin in 2012-13 and was the first goalie drafted in 2013, beating out Tristan Jarry, Eric Comrie and Juuse Saros, among others.
Fucale always seemed to be around quality teammates, leaving some to wonder if he was just getting carried by star talent. That didn't change when he helped backstop a dominant Canadian team to gold at the 2015 World Junior Championship. OK, so he can get the job done with a stacked group in front of him. What if you take that away? That's exactly what happened when Fucale got to the pro ranks. His vulnerabilities were exposed and his struggles were evident.
In Montreal, the odds were stacked against him. Carey Price was, and still is, the No. 1, and Fucale would have had to settle for 20 starts a year on a midpack organization. He went to Vegas, where, again, the pipeline was busy and Marc-Andre Fleury had the job nailed down. In 2019-20, he had to fight with AHL stalwarts Spencer Martin and Scott Wedgewood for time, and lost. To date, Fucale has played more ECHL games (116) than AHL games (85) over the past seven years, with 17 of those American league starts coming over the past three seasons.
So, Fucale getting the start was a big deal. While Fucale was once seen as a promising goalie prospect, nothing really went his way. Until now. Thursday's victory wasn't any measly win. It was a shutout, an explosive way to get your career kicked off after years of struggling to find space.
That's not to say Fucale's career has been a total failure, because it hasn't. Hockey Canada loves him, choosing him to backstop the Spencer Cup to gold medals in 2016 and 2019. Had the NHL elected to stay home from the 2022 Olympic Games, you could bet Fucale would have been one of the first players chosen to represent the best of the rest. He's been a winner wherever he's worn his country's colors. Fucale also had the AHL's top goals-against average last year with a 1.80, with his work with Pheonix Copley earning the pair the Harry Holmes Memorial Award as the league's best goaltending duo.
But above all, getting the chance to win your first NHL game – and in front of your family, something many rookies didn't have a chance to do last year – tops everything. In Fucale's case, it's a sign to never give up. He could have easily become a star in Europe, and he even looked to have abandoned his North American dreams when he signed in the German league in Feb. 2020.
But he didn't. And Fucale was rewarded with a big moment on a big stage on Thursday. It's something nobody can take away from him, and it's proof that determination can take you quite far if you give it a chance.
Fucale should return to the AHL in the coming days and resume his duty of trying to edge Copley out for more starts along the way. But Fucale's long journey shouldn't be forgotten, because while most goalie prospects fade away if they don't make it in their first five years of trying, Fucale proved you can still get it done. The stars aligned perfectly to make his debut happen, and it's hard not to cheer for an underdog.