July 20th, 2024

Zahara relishes first WHL start, hungry for more

By JAMES TUBB on October 21, 2023.

jtubb@medicinehatnews.com@ReporterTubb

It was a long time coming but Zach Zahara finally got his chance at a WHL start.

The Medicine Hat Tigers’ net minder was between the pipes and made 25 saves Wednesday night in a 3-2 overtime win at Vancouver against the Giants, picking up his first win as a starter.

It was an important game for the Tigers, coming off a 4-1 loss the night before against the Victoria Royals, a win meant a 2-1 record on the B.C. trip, a loss would have put them below the .500 level in the province. The impact of the game wasn’t lost on Zahara who was looking to make the most of the nod.

“I thought the guys had a really good bounce-back and that was kind of our game plan going in,” Zahara said.”I just had to be good for the guys that night, I knew I had something to prove once again and just try to deliver for them.”

He felt settled into the game in the third period when the Tigers needed him most. Vancouver outshot Medicine Hat 11-8 in the frame where it was a 2-2 tie. The Rocky View product turned aside all the shots he faced, with a standout being a lone Vancouver shooter in front with four minutes left in the period that Zahara turned aside with the glove.

Zahara enjoys the close games and having to rise to the moment.

“I play well under pressure, so the bigger pressure situation the sharper that I’ll generally be,” Zahara said.

The 18-year-old has had plenty of high pressured games in his career so far, backstopping the South Alberta Hockey Academy to back-to-back Circle K Classic championships. He was named the 2023 tournament playoff MVP.

He hadn’t received that WHL opportunity until his start Wednesday, making only relief appearances so far. He came into two games in the 2021-22 season, playing a combined 140 minutes in blowouts where he made 59 saves while allowing 11 goals. He also played eight minutes in Game 3 of the Tigers’ playoff series last year against the Winnipeg Ice.

He’s also one of three goaltenders the Tigers are carrying, with Evan May running with the starter’s role, leaving Zahara and 17-year-old Ethan McCallum battling for the backup job.

Getting into this first start and getting the win did a lot for him and his mental game, Zahara says, and he’s looking forward to continuing to prove he belongs.

“It obviously builds lots of confidence within myself,” Zahara said. “There is still a spot up for grabs and whether they make that choice now or two months from now, you still have to earn your spot every single day in practice, the grind never really stops.”

While Wednesday was his first win between the pipes as a starter, Zahara picked up his first WHL win in a relief appearance in the Tigers’ 8-7 overtime win at Swift Current against the Broncos on Oct. 6. He made two saves, one in the extra frame, in 17:17 of action for his first victory.

It wasn’t the way he would have pictured the first victory but he enjoyed the challenge of getting loose in a hurry and coming into what was a back-and-forth game.

“Coming off the bench cold isn’t the best all the time, just trying to loosen up here and there between whistles and TV timeouts,” Zahara said. “Just trying to get a good stretch in if I get some shots or something. I kind of stayed loose and not get too caught up to the moment, get too tight.”

He’s enjoyed the experience of the B.C. road trip and has spent a lot of it alongside forward Brett Calhoon and defenceman Blake Ekren-Bratton. Between rooming with his D-man, sharing lunches with the trio and seeing the sights with the team, there’s been a lot to take in on his first longer trip in the WHL.

“This road trip has been real fun, being in some cool places like Kelowna and Victoria have been really cool to see,” Zahara said. “I’ve been to most places before but haven’t really gotten days off here to go and look at the city, towns and countryside. It’s been fun and really cool to see the West Coast here.”

Zahara was the backup Friday night behind May for the Tigers’ penultimate game of their B.C. road trip, as they were at Kamloops taking on the Blazers. That game was not complete by press time, visit medicinehatnews.com/sports for a full game story.

The Tigers’ B.C. trip wraps up Sunday when they are at Prince George to face the Cougars.

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