BLAKE SEBRING: Garrett Bartus understands how important he is to Komets

Komets goaltender Garrett Bartus slams the pads shut to stop a second-period scoring attempt by Allen's Olivier Archambault during Sunday's game at Memorial Coliseum. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

Komets goaltender Garrett Bartus slams the pads shut to stop a second-period scoring attempt by Allen's Olivier Archambault during Sunday's game at Memorial Coliseum. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

As the Fort Wayne Komets’ No. 2 goaltender, Garrett Bartus sometimes has the best and the worst job on the team. Most games he backs up Michael Houser, meaning he might play once per week, but he has to be prepared to play every game in case something happens like a call-up or an injury. “Hurry up and wait” should be his motto.

Yet, Bartus has to believe he’s good enough to be the team’s No. 1 goaltender. If he doesn’t, nobody else will. There’s also got to be a little bit of an ego involved because how else would a kid who grew up playing all over the Midwest, finally earn a spot in the Southern Professional Hockey League. After winning that league’s Most Valuable Player award, he clawed his way onto the Komets and was arguably one of the team’s best players and stories last year.

But this year he’s played in only 11 of the team’s 39 games, improving to 7-2-0 with a 2.44 goals against average and .906 save percentage after Sunday’s 4-1 win over Allen. He made 17 saves Sunday as the Komets dominated to win their fourth game in a row.

The thing is, it was his first game since Dec. 30 when he won a shutout. That’s because the Komets had three goalies for a bit, it’s just the way the schedule worked out and the fact that Houser has been so good, going 13-3 recently. He’s been great, earning the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Month honor. Bartus just had to wait.

“It’s not always a fair world that we live in, and he’s been such a good team player, and to see him play the way he did tonight and to see the way the guys defended, we really defended with a purpose tonight,” Komets coach Gary Graham said. “We won a lot of races and we won a lot of battles. I thought the group played well, but Barts made a few big saves for us. To see him get a win and get back into the lineup meant a lot for our team.”

And that’s not just coachspeak. The Komets skaters truly love playing in front of Bartus. They admire his work ethic, how he sacrifices for the team and the way he’s always willing to go out early before and stay later after practice if they want to work on anything. That’s not just the No. 2 guy role, but the part of being a great teammate that Bartus embraces. He’ll do anything to help anyone on the team if they ask, and they all have asked.

They also genuinely all like the guy, which doesn’t always happen with a No. 2 goaltender. Sometimes those guys can be grouchy, head cases who believe they deserve better and will tell everyone that’s how they feel. Finding guys like Bartus who can play and fit in with that role yet still work to make everyone else better… those guys have long professional careers, sometimes longer than players who have larger contracts, higher draft statuses and bigger reputations.

“When you have a goalie that you really care about, you want to play in front of on a nightly basis and give everything, that’s the way the guys feel about Barts,” Graham said. “They know he’s not the No. 1 guy, but they know when he gets in he’s going to do everything he can to help the team win. What he does in practice makes us all better with the way he competes.”

Everybody in the locker room believes in Bartus because he’s earned it, and maybe most of all because he understands the position he’s in. Houser is the Komets’ No. 1 goaltender. He’s earned it. That doesn’t diminish in any way the respect his teammates have for Bartus.

“He wants the net as much as I do, and it’s nice to know that if he sits a few weeks in a row, he’s still going to be ready,” Houser said. “That’s not easy to do. He works really hard in practice to make sure, and everybody knows it. Whoever is in there, we all give us a pretty good chance to win every time. I think it’s pretty comforting for everybody that we have two guys who can do that.”

That doesn’t mean Bartus is just giving up on earning that top spot, either. He proved last season when Pat Nagle got hurt that he can handle it, and it’s still a possibility of something that can happen.

“Something that helps that is the chemistry we have on the team,” Bartus said. “Me and Mike get along very well, we have a pretty good relationship. Some guys are a little bit more territorial than that, and don’t like other guys and feel threatened, but we’ve got a good thing going. He’s been lights-out all year, and obviously, he deserves everything he’s gotten.”

And right there is really why the Komets have so much respect for Bartus. A goaltender feud can tear a locker room apart, and frankly happens more often than it does that both guys get along. They are all competitors who have to believe they are better than the other guy, and complete confidence is the first line of the job description.

But Bartus is a team guy first and he understands that for a team to win a championship they’ll need two goaltenders who work together to make each other better. That’s something that can really only happen when they do work together, even though they are competing against each other all the time. It’s an interesting dichotomy that doesn’t happen very often in professional sports.

“You confide in each other and he’s the only guy in the room who really understands what you are going through,” Bartus said. “The goalie-to-goalie relationship is a lot different than it is with all your other teammates. You have to keep it healthy because you both want the same things. Especially when you have two good goalies on the team, it’s going to be a battle, you are going to fight for your minutes and it’s actually very beneficial for the team as a whole. If you can not let it affect your relationship and your mentality, competition is always good for a team.”

Maybe that’s easier for Bartus to understand because he’s 28 and he’s had to fight so hard for every chance he’s gotten. He understands he could probably be a No. 1 goaltender somewhere else in the ECHL, and if he asked, the Komets would trade him to provide that opportunity. But Bartus also understands that the Komets locker room brotherhood is strong, and this year could be something very special because of it. He wants to be part of what could be a remarkable season, something he will likely play a pivotal role in.

Finding those opportunities aren’t easy, either.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of News-Sentinel.com. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com.

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