MACON, Ga. - Craig Hillier has gone from National Hockey League prospect to East Coast League reclamation project.
Can the 23-year-old goalie resurrect his once-promising career with the Augusta Lynx?
Lynx coach Jim Burton should have the answer following tonight's rematch between the Lynx and Whoopee at Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.
Hillier, a first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1996, and second-year pro Cris Classen are battling to become the backup in net to incumbent No. 1 Judd Lambert.
The tandem split the duties Friday night as the Lynx dropped their preseason opener, 4-1, to Macon. Rookie Patrick Yetman scored Augusta's goal at 5:02 of the second period.
After Classen started and surrendered a pair of goals on 13 shots, Hillier took over midway through the second period. He gave up a goal just 15 seconds into his Lynx debut when Jocelyn Langlois banged in a rebound, and was the victim of a Lynx defensive breakdown in front as Macon's Alex Zinevych made it 4-1 at 12:43 of the third period.
Hillier - who allowed two goals on 19 shots - will start tonight and will again split the duties with Classen.
Both will be under Burton's microscope.
"It will probably come down to who I think can win the most games that they back up in," Burton said. "I'll certainly be watching pretty intensely to try and figure that out."
Lambert will start Monday's preseason finale on the road against the Columbia Inferno and play the entire game as a tune-up to Friday's season-opener against the Greensboro Generals at home, meaning tonight is the last shot for Hillier and Classen to show their stuff.
Hillier, who went 4-10-1 with a 4.19 goals-against average in 19 games for the Wheeling Nailers, appears to be the frontrunner.
But Classen - who went 14-4-1 with a 2.94 GAA and won a championship as a rookie with San Diego of the West Coast League last season - has looked good during the first five days of training camp and is giving Hillier a serious run.
"They're both working real hard in practice and both seem to be improving, so it's really going to come down to these games," Burton said. "Craig obviously has a lot of talent and I think can be an excellent goaltender if he can get his confidence back. Classen - he's looking really good and is better and better each practice. He was 14-4 last year and you can see why."
In Friday's exhibition, both Hillier and Classen were outdone by another goalie who began the week in training camp with the Lynx.
Rookie Duane Hoey, released by the Lynx on Wednesday, signed with Macon and recorded 25 saves to record the Whoopee's first ECHL victory. Macon took the step up this season after several years in the Central Hockey League.
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