ORONO, Maine — As practice for Maine wound down, freshman goaltender Matt Lundin sat on a bench adjacent the tunnel where players exit the ice at Alfond Arena.
As his teammates filed past, one after another tapped him on his chin with the blade of his hockey stick. Lundin bared a slight smirk while wiping away the ice shavings on his chin.
Said Lundin, “I love this team.”
As a rookie, every player can expect heckling, and Lundin has seen his share. But he worked through it to gain acceptance as not just a backup, but a topnotch goaltender.
“Lundin’s done a nice job earning respect as a true freshman that we can count on him,” said Black Bears head coach Tim Whitehead. “If Jimmy Howard gets injured or if he challenges him toe-to-toe, I’m very confident he can step in as our top guy.”
In the meantime, Lundin will work under the mentorship of the All-American, Howard. Last season, Howard set two NCAA records for best save percentage at .956 and lowest goals against average at 1.19.
“It’s tough not to play Jimmy because of those numbers and because he’s one of the best in the country,” said senior co-captain John Ronan. “Lundin’s a very determined kid, though.”
This season, Howard has started all but two games for the Black Bears and has compiled an 11-8-4 record with a .908 save percentage and 2.14 goals against average. Whitehead said it’s easy to explain why Howard’s numbers haven’t been as impressive as last season. Besides injuries to his ankle and both knees, he fought mononucleosis this summer and had to reduce his training, which hampered efforts to get into playing shape.
“But now that he’s far enough past the mono, he was given clearance to train hard,” said Whitehead. “So I think he’ll finish very strong for us.”
But if that doesn’t work out, Maine has a backup plan. “It’s a pretty good one, too,” said Whitehead.
And that’s Lundin.
In 136 minutes of six games, Lundin has posted a .939 save percentage and 1.76 goals against average. His first appearance of the year came at the end of a 7-1 season-opening win against current No. 14 Vermont.
“I’m glad it was only five minutes,” Lundin said. “I was a little shaky.”
He finally got a chance to prove himself as a starting goalie in the second home game against Niagara. Starting his first collegiate game provided Lundin with even more jitters.
“It didn’t really hit me until we skated out onto the ice, and I forgot my stick,” he said. “The guys started laughing, so I had to come back to get it.”
But Lundin quickly recovered. Five minutes into the game, a Niagara forward beat a Maine defenseman and went on a breakaway.
“But Matt made a great save on him, and he was fantastic the rest of the game,” said Whitehead. “At that point, Howard wasn’t 100 percent healthy, and we hadn’t swept a weekend yet, so it was a great opportunity for him. It really gave the bench a huge lift to see him rise to that occasion.”
Lundin made 28 saves and got the 6-2 win.
But the ultimate test of the freshman goalie arose unexpectedly. With Maine leading 1-0, Lundin stepped into a heated rivalry against New Hampshire. The Wildcats happened to be on a five-on-three power play when Howard was pulled from the game with a knee injury.
“We didn’t want to use our timeout to warm him up,” said Whitehead. “We didn’t think it was worth it. So, we threw him right into the heat. He made some huge saves and helped pitch the shutout.” Howard and Lundin combined for that 3-0 victory.
“That was our biggest home game of the year,” said Whitehead. “It was very impressive for a freshman to handle that situation with so much poise and confidence.”
“I don’t know how he pulled that one off,” said Ronan. “I was nervous for the guy.”
But despite his early success, Lundin is still hungry for more.
“He wants to be on the ice,” said Whitehead. “He’ll continue to improve here and get more playing time because he loves to compete.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a goalie,” said Lundin. “I moved up to squirts a year early because they needed an extra goalie. But I had to switch off with the other one, and that always made me mad.”
Lundin played bantam hockey his freshman year of high school in Apple Valley, Minn., and junior varsity his sophomore year.
“My goal was just to make the varsity,” he said. He did more.
Lundin played all 54 varsity games his junior and senior seasons. That’s why he had to adjust to his backup role with Maine.
Matt Lundin’s brother Mike, a sophomore defenseman for Maine, has helped him do that.
“We’ve played together forever,” said Lundin. “We expect a lot from each other, and we let each other know when the other messes up.”
Mike Lundin said he tries not to heckle his brother too much, however.
“If I say something to him, sometimes he takes it personally,” he said. “But since I challenge him as much as I can, it ends up making him even better.
“The players in college shoot the puck a lot harder and skate a lot faster. But he adjusted surprisingly well.”
Howard, Lundin’s roommate, is impressed with the young goalie’s maturity and said the 18-year-old reminds him of himself when he was a freshman.
“He’s a very quiet kid, just like I was,” said Howard.
Howard added that their styles at the position bear a close resemblance as well.
“We’re more similar than people believe,” Howard said. “We both like to play the butterfly style, and we play the angles really well. He’ll stand up to the shooters more, and sometimes he’s a little more aggressive, but for the most part, our games are very similar.”
The role Lundin will play on next year’s team depends on whether Howard returns for his senior season. As a second-round draft pick of Detroit in 2003, Howard may opt to sign with the Red Wings at the end of the season. Most likely, his decision will revolve around the resolution of NHL player-owner disputes, but Howard prefers to save that choice for later.
“Right now, it’s up in the air,” he said. “I haven’t been thinking about it because we’ve got a battle to make the playoffs, and that’s the only thing I’m concentrating on.”
The Black Bears also have a plan to ink another goalie if Howard moves on. Ben Bishop of the Texas Tornado in the North American Hockey League verbally committed to play for Maine next fall. But if Howard plays his fourth year, Bishop will continue playing junior hockey and attend Maine the following season.
No matter Howard’s decision, it may be some time before Lundin’s name is mentioned with Maine’s great goalies of the past — Blair Allison, Garth Snow, Mike Dunham. You could throw in Lundin’s counterpart, Howard, as well. But Lundin isn’t intimidated by the past.
“It’s a lot of pressure with Maine’s history of goalies going beyond college,” said Lundin. “But I just see it as a place to play hockey, and all I have to do to succeed is have fun.
“And I’m having fun.”
So, it may not be out of the question to see him in a more crucial role in the near future.
“There are two things I really like about Matt,” said Whitehead. “One, he’s pushing Howard more. Two, when he had the opportunity to play, he rose to the challenge.”
According to Whitehead, Lundin is capable of alternating starts like Howard and Frank Doyle did last season.
“Matt is ready for that,” said Whitehead. “Whether we do it, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Howard is also optimistic for his teammate.
“I’m excited because I know if he continues to improve, he’s going to be a great goaltender.”