Guarding the Dragons’ lair
by Derek O'Brien|24 NOV 2021
Slovenian netminder Matija Pintaric of the Rouen Dragons has been the busiest goaltender in this Champions Hockey League season.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Following a 3-0 home-ice win last week in the first leg of the Champions Hockey League’s Round of 16, the Rouen Dragons find themselves on the verge of becoming the first French team to ever advance to the quarter-finals. All they need against Red Bull Salzburg on Wednesday night is a win, a tie, or even a loss by two goals or less. 

“It was a good first game, for sure,” said Rouen goaltender Matija Pintaric, who made 33 saves for the shutout. “We were almost surprised by how well we matched up against them because we’ve had some ups and downs in the defensive zone. I would say that was our best defensive effort of the year, just the way we were able to keep them on the outside and limit the amount of chances against a talented team like Salzburg, and I think that’s gonna be the key again the next game.”

Another key to the game will be Pintaric himself, who is the biggest reason the Dragons have made it to this position. Pintaric has played all seven of his team’s CHL games so far and they’ve been outshot in nearly all of them. His 249 saves to this point – an average of 35 per game – is by far the most in the competition this season. And yet, his goals-against average of 2.01 and save percentage of 94.68 sparkle. 

And still another potential influence on Wednesday’s return game in Salzburg is that it will unfortunately take place with no fans in attendance, as Austria went into lockdown on Monday. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage,” Pintaric said about playing the game without opposition fans. “Maybe a little, but generally speaking, it’s nicer to play in front of a crowd, even if it’s hostile. Last season, the whole year was without crowds and it sucked.”

Salzburg is a place that Pintaric is familiar with as a visiting goalie. Originally from Maribor, Slovenia, Pintaric turned pro with Olimpija Ljubljana back in 2008 in the Austrian-based international league that is now called the ICEHL. After stops in Sweden and Kazakhstan, this is now Pintaric’s seventh season in France and fifth in Rouen. 

“There are some good places to play but I think that Rouen is the best,” Pintaric said about the French Ligue Magnus. “We have great fans and they stick with us even when things don’t go our way, which is a big thing. I think that’s one of the reasons we have so many comebacks – when we get down a goal or two, there’s not that negative pressure from the fans. It’s underrated how much that can help a team, so they’re definitely an asset to us.”

As for Rouen, a city of 110,000 in Normandy about 135 km from Paris and 60 km from the English Channel, he said: “It’s pretty multicultural, just like most of France is. I don’t think anybody cares where you come from, as long as you have the right values and do your job on and off the ice. They’ve been very welcoming to me.”

In his time in Rouen, Pintaric has backstopped the Dragons to two national championships, resulting in two trips to the CHL. He’s been named the league’s top goalie three times and was the playoff MVP in 2018. So far this season, Rouen is fourth in the league but has played fewer games than the three teams in front of them because of the CHL schedule. 

“We’ve had some ups and downs but more ups than downs, I would say, especially lately,” he said. “We have a lot of new players this year and it took us a while to get going, but I would say it’s going pretty well now. But also we’ve yet not played Grenoble, which is our biggest direct rival and is a bit of a measuring stick for us, so we’ll know a bit more once we face them.” 

At various age levels, Pintaric has also represented Slovenia internationally. He played three games in Paris at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and was on the team’s roster at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. 

On playing for the national team, he said: “Slovenia is a pretty small country, so throughout the years I’ve played with a lot of the same guys, even before in junior, so we all know each other and it’s got kind of a club vibe, but I think there’s going to be a transition soon as my generation gets older, so we’ll see what comes.”

As for hockey in Slovenia in general, Pintaric said: “Now with Olimpija back (in the ICEHL), I think it helps a lot. Hosting the World Championship (Division I Group A) is going to help too because the fans especially look forward to those big events, so I think there’s gonna be big support.”

Pintaric also played for Slovenia at this year’s Olympic Qualification tournament in late August, which happened at the same time as the CHL group stage. Because of that, teams by affected countries were all placed into two groups, which is why Rouen ended up with KAC Klagenfurt from Austria, HC Donbass from Ukraine and Rungsted IK from Denmark, giving them perhaps an easier path to the knockout stage of the competition. 

“Last time we played in the CHL a couple years ago, we had a Finnish team, a Czech team and a German team and we also managed to get out of the group,” Pintaric pointed out, referring to the 2018/19 season in which Rouen also made it to the round of 16. “It’s a bit of an easier group on paper but you can only play who you’re given. We’re just trying to beat the team in front of us and whatever happens, happens.”

If they get past Salzburg, the Dragons’ quarter-final opponent will be Tappara Tampere from Finland, who beat the Vaxjo Lakers from Sweden last night.

“I like our chances against anybody, but that’s the mentality you have to have as a professional.”