Wilson, McClendon are Hat Tricks backbone for playoffs

by Jim Cerny, Hat Tricks Insider

When the Danbury Hat Tricks open the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup Playoffs in Elmira against the Mammoth on Friday night, Brian Wilson will be in goal. And Frankie McClendon will be right next to him, figuratively if not literally.

That’s because the goalies have been the backbone of Danbury’s success this season and will be looked upon to be the team’s bedrock throughout the FPHL playoffs.

“Wilson and McClendon have the innate ability to push each other and bring out the best in each other,” Hat Tricks coach and general manager Billy McCreary said. “Our success as a team comes from what we are willing to do for each other and those two bring that to the rink every day.”

There’s been plenty of success for the Hat Tricks and their goalies this season. The pair helped lead the Hat Tricks (44-7-5) to a franchise-record 129 points, the regular-season FPHL championship and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

With Wilson and McClendon playing all but a small handful of games this season, Danbury was second in the League allowing 2.79 goals per game (156 goals in 56 games).

“We look at it as we have a 1a and 1b goalie, we both can be a starter in this League,” McClendon explained. “We’re always talking, bouncing ideas off each other, having fun with each other, and that’s the sign of a good partnership. I just think we were work together really well.”

That’s an understatement. Each goalie had career-best numbers in 2022-23.

Wilson emerged as a star in his second professional season. The 26-year-old led the FPHL with 31 wins, a League record, and was second with a 2.68 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. He was named FPHL co-goalie of the year, sharing the award with Breandan Colgan of the Columbus River Dragons.

“It’s pretty cool and always nice to get some recognition at the end of the year,” Wilson said. “I feel like I’ve been able to put together a pretty good, pretty consistent year. And a lot of that credit goes to the team in front of me.

“Plus, me and Frankie, we work really well together.”

McClendon, a veteran of seven FPHL seasons, did his part, too. The 30-year-old was 10-2-0 this season with a 2.19 GAA and .917 save percentage.

“They’re a dual threat,” Hat Tricks goaltending coach Matt Voity said. “You can’t diminish that. Really it should be ‘Willy’ and Frankie sharing the award.”

Not only did McClendon play extremely well this season, teammates and coaches praised him for his professionalism and leadership. Though the younger Wilson received the bigger workload, McClendon never wavered in support of his goaltending partner nor did he let it affect his play.

“I can never say enough positive things about Frankie,” McCreary said. “He’s the ultimate teammate and a true pro who’s still getting better at his craft. He’s a great example to others.”

This is nothing new for McClendon. He has a well-earned reputation in the FPHL for being a trusted goalie and terrific teammate. It’s simply who he is and how he’s wired.

“Every goalie wants to be a No. 1 starter and I’ve always had that goal,” McClendon explained. “But I don’t want to be a selfish guy. I’ve always been a team guy. That’s how my parents raised me. I’ll never put myself before the team.”

That selflessness played a huge part in the Hat Tricks success in 2022-23. But so, too, did Wilson’s breakout season.

Wilson showed flashes in Danbury as a rookie in 2021-22. He was 11-5-0 with a 3.10 GAA and .894 save percentage. But there were still areas of his game that needed refining, according to Voity. Especially after playing only three games the season before as a senior at Niagara University because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“He’s a big guy (6-foot-4) and at Niagara he had a compact stance, but he got out of it that COVID year because he didn’t play too much and it was hard for him with his long legs and torso to completely regain his form last season,” Voity explained.

“But I’m really proud of him. He worked so hard on his game, got dialed in and he’s so consistent now. Pucks find him. And he’s making all the stops.”

One other thing. Wilson committed to playing for the Hat Tricks this season and decided not to chase every opportunity at higher levels. As a rookie, he was loaned to two teams in the ECHL and was a backup for Springfield in the American Hockey League for one game. 

Wilson admitted his first season was chaotic and not the best route to develop his game. So, this season he committed to a full season with the Hat Tricks and the results speak for themselves.

“Last year, I was chasing and searching for opportunities. Now, I’m much more in the present,” Wilson offered. “Obviously this year it’s been great, getting settled in to one spot here at Danbury and not constantly moving around.”

McClendon believes that being settled has helped Wilson achieve success this season.

“I’m very happy for him,” McClendon said. “He’s put in a lot of work here and wants to win here in Danbury. He stopped chasing that next call up. And kudos to him, he’s had a great season and is really enjoying himself.”

Wilson allowed two goals or fewer in 20 starts this season and made 40 or more saves eight times. He closed out the regular season with a stellar 50-save performance in a 4-1 win against the Port Huron Prowlers on Saturday.

Now it’s time for the playoffs. And McClendon, who won the Commissioner’s Cup in 2019 with the Carolina Thunderbirds, said he believes the Hat Tricks are better positioned than a year ago to make a run.

“This is a very special group and season. I get choked up speaking about it,” McClendon stated. “I have championship feelings.”

Photos: Chris Rutsch