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How journeyman Adin Hill soared from fourth-stringer to Stanley Cup Final starter

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LAS VEGAS — Adin Hill was about 14 years old when his goaltending coach in Calgary, Justin Cardinal, remembers getting a phone call from Adin’s dad, Kyle.

Adin had struggled badly in his minor-hockey game that day, and the teenager wondered if his coach could squeeze in an extra lesson that evening so Adin could work on a few things before his next game.

“We had a little session on our ice pad,” Cardinal explained Friday. “Within an hour, he had corrected everything. He was smiling and was super-confident again. For a 14-year-old kid to hit a mental switch like that, show that much maturity and resilience at his age, it was incredible.

“I remember going home and telling my wife: ‘This kid gets it. He’s going to play in the National Hockey League.’ I’m not surprised at all that this is happening.”

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The Stanley Cup Final is happening, beginning Saturday, with Adin Hill starting in goal for the Vegas Golden Knights.

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At the other end of the ice will be $70-million man Sergei Bobrovsky, who in four years hasn’t delivered anything close to the Vezina Trophy-calibre goaltending the Florida Panthers were hoping for but could win the Conn Smythe Trophy if his team upsets the Knights in the Stanley Cup.

And then there is Hill, the 27-year-old journeyman who cost Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon a fourth-round draft pick to acquire from San Jose last August after the Golden Knights learned starting goalie Robin Lehner would miss the entire 2022-23 season due to injury and projected backup Laurent Brossoit could also be unavailable for months due to hip surgery.

Until a month ago, Hill had never logged an NHL playoff game during his seven professional seasons. Saturday will be his 11th straight since Brossoit was re-injured in Game 3 of the second round against Edmonton. Hill is 7-2-1 with a .937 save rate and, according to Clear Sight Analytics, has saved 9.71 goals above expected. So far.

Not bad for a guy who wasn’t sure where he would fit in when he moved to Vegas last summer and joined his third NHL organization in just over a year.

“I mean, you grow up dreaming of playing one game in the NHL, so I wouldn’t say it has been hard,” Hill said Friday of his NHL journey during media day at T-Mobile Arena. “A lot of hard work and a lot of ups and downs, injuries, trades and that stuff. But it’s a great life. I’ve enjoyed every year of it, and I’m having a good time.

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“I didn’t know exactly where I was going to fit. I knew that they needed a goalie and they traded for me, but I didn’t know if I was going to be starting, backing up or what. But when I looked at this team when I got traded here … it’s a team that you look at the roster, you’re like, they can win the Cup, right? So kind of my first thought was, ‘Hey, we’re going to be in the playoffs and we’re going to have a chance at this thing.’

“I feel like I’ve always had a quiet confidence in myself. It’s nice to have this opportunity. We’ve got four more wins to get, and I’m excited to try and get it.”

No one could have imagined when the season began that Hill would be the goalie trying to collect them.

With Lehner and Brossoit out, new starter Logan Thompson had a first half so good that the rookie was named to the NHL All-Star Game in February. But the 25-year-old graduate of the Knights’ American Hockey League team sustained a lower-body injury in his first start after the break and has played only one game since.

In all, Vegas has used five goalies this season (none of them Lehner) and at one point in March won four straight games with four different netminders, an NHL first. Maybe the Golden Knights’ MVP should be goaltending coach Sean Burke, who pushed for the acquisition of Hill, a former junior teammate of Burke’s son, Brendan, with the Portland Winterhawks nearly a decade ago.

“Sean Burke’s done a great job of making sure they all get their work, managing who goes into the practice net,” Vegas head coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters. “Every year you have different things like that that come up, and you just have to handle it. They’re all good pros and they all handled it well. That’s kind of how we got through it. We didn’t plan too far ahead for starts.”

McCrimmon understated: “We had certainly some surprises in net this season.”

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Between injuries, including his own, Hill played 27 times for the Knights during the regular season. He has been at the NHL level for most of the last three years, but six seasons into his career has still logged more games in the minors and hasn’t yet gone a full campaign without at least one visit to the AHL.

Panthers backup Alex Lyon, a 30-year-old who is also on his third NHL organization, appreciates what Hill has done to get here.

“Adin, I don’t know him personally, but I have followed him since he was in San Jose,” Lyon said. “I thought he was a very good goalie in San Jose. There’s no surprise to me that he’s doing as well as he is.

“The hardest part for sure, in my opinion, especially going AHL to NHL, is in the AHL, I’m the man. My personality can just flow. And I’m not trying to be too boisterous, but … when you’re comfortable in a place and the team relies on you, your personality shows. And then you come up (to the NHL) and all of a sudden, you’re the lowest man on the totem pole. It’s just very, very difficult to maintain your game when you’re not quite as confident in your surroundings.

“Goalie is very much a function of stress, comfortability, just how you feel. It’s a feel position. All goalies have some level of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so when you’re not in your routine, it’s very difficult. The game doesn’t change as much as you change, but it’s very hard to control that.”

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And yet, nothing has rattled Hill. When a fan in Dallas dumped popcorn on him as he was walking to the ice to finish off a second-round shutout win, he didn’t react and the goalie quipped later: “I guess everything was just hitting me tonight.”

“I’ve never been a part of this much media or any of that stuff before,” Hill said Friday, even if his media scrum was a little smaller than some others. “It’s exciting. But at the same time, you’ve just kind of got to almost put it on the back burner and just focus on the task.

“I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming. It’s a little exciting. I mean, honestly, if I could right now, I’d just put on my skates and get on the ice. But, yeah, of course, there’s a buzz. It’s the Stanley Cup.”

The Stanley Cup could be in Adin Hill’s backyard this summer. Hill is an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

“His work ethic and drive are second to none,” Cardinal, the long-time summer coach, said of Hill. “He was a late bloomer; he didn’t get his size until he was 17. But he was always athletic. That was one of his biggest strengths. So he’s athletic, he’s flexible, he works hard, he’s focused, he is technical but has the ability to keep things simple, and he’s driven to succeed. When you look at a goalie, what else could you want?”

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