TAMPA, Fla. — There’s something comforting to a team about going into the season with your goaltending situation locked down.
But this year’s Frozen Four field shows that it’s not exactly a bad sign if you start October with questions — even big ones — between the pipes.
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So in a Frozen Four setting that can turn goaltenders into stars, the teams will be able to look to the crease and know that player has earned the right to get introduced before the biggest games of the year.
“We just haven’t had the reins throughout our career; we’ve all had our struggles in our own way with lost time,” Boston College’s Parker Milner said in assessing the Frozen Four goaltending corps. “It’s good to see all of us growing into ourselves a little bit.”
Some teams had more work to do than others in finding the person that will occupy the most-watched parts of the ice on Thursday.
Before it started a memorable run that locked it in as the top overall seed in the tournament, Boston College was just getting by, sitting at 14-10-1 after a loss to Maine on Jan. 21.
Milner, a junior, was the most experienced goaltender on the roster after John Muse graduated, and he started the first 13 games of the season. But a stretch of three losses in four games made the Eagles start to look elsewhere.
Over the next 12 outings, freshman Brian Billett got eight starts and little-used senior Chris Venti made two.
Milner got his starting job back on Jan. 27 against New Hampshire and has reeled off 17 straight wins since, with a 1.11 goals against average and a .960 save percentage.
“Things can change with the snap of your finger, for good or for worse,” Milner said. “We’re 9-1 and the next thing you know we’re 14-10 and just got swept by Maine. I think we’ve learned that you can’t sit back ever, whether you’re in the Frozen Four or its the first game of the season.”
Troy Grosenick had all of three games and just shy of 85 minutes of collegiate experience with him as he tried to win Union’s starting job at the start of this season.
But that also made the sophomore the most experienced of the three goalies in camp after All-American Keith Kinkaid signed with the New Jersey Devils during the offseason.
Grosenick got the first crack at the starting job in the fall, and after a bit of a slow start he showed the spot was going to be his all season.
In 2012, he has lost just twice in his 17 appearances, and he takes a personal seven-game winning streak into the Frozen Four.
“Any good teams that go deep in the playoffs have a terrific goalie,” Union’s Jeremy Welsh said. “Obviously, Grosenick is one of those. I think the biggest attribute Grosenick brings is his battle, his compete level. We’re pretty good at team defense. He’s a good first-shot goalie, but I think his best asset is the way he battles for rebounds and those back-door plays. Maybe he’ll give up one or two of those, a lucky bounce back door, and he’s there to save it. Most goalies can’t make those saves.”
Grosenick is second nationally in goals against average (1.64) and save percentage (.936), numbers that helped him to a spot among the final 10 in the race for the Hobey Baker Award.
Ferris State’s Taylor Nelson also spent last season as a backup to an All-American, appearing in only four games while seeing senior Pat Nagle post impressive numbers.
With Nagle out of the picture, it was up to Nelson and freshman CJ Motte to keep goaltending a strength in a largely murky situation for the Bulldogs, who seemingly failed to inspire those outside the program before the season. CCHA coaches picked them for ninth in the 11-team league.
Nelson and Motte split the first four series of the season, each going 3-1 as the team roared out to a strong start before losing twice at Michigan.
The rotation continued through most of the 2011 portion of the schedule. As the calendar flipped to 2012, Nelson was 7-4 with a 2.01 goals against average and a .927 save percentage; Motte was 4-4-1 with 1.99 and .925 statistics.
It may have been just one of those cases where the team plays better for one goalie, but Nelson got 18 of the 21 starts so far in 2012, and he was solid in the Midwest Regional to help Ferris State get to Tampa.
On Thursday, he gets a matchup against a goaltender who shares similar origins this season.
“The good thing about it is we have to compete against one another, right?” Nelson said of the pairing against Grosenick and Union. “And our main job is to keep that puck out of the net. And both guys are willing to do that. I know I am, and he sure as heck is, too.
“We want to keep the ball rolling for our teams. And the good thing is I don’t have to line up against him in the faceoff circle or on a breakaway in that regard. So we just have to keep the pucks out of the net. That’s the main goal. Stop the little black thing.”
That leaves Minnesota’s Kent Patterson as the only starting holdover from last season, and he made it known early that he wasn’t going to be giving the backups much reason to get ready.
He was 7-1 with four shutouts in October, posting a 1.74 goals against average and a .939 save percentage in being named national player of the month.
Patterson started 28 of the Gophers’ 36 games last season, becoming the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender when incoming starter Alex Kangas faltered.
“I knew there were high expectations,” Patterson said of the start of this season. “Coach said right away that you’re going to be the guy. I don’t like to take a lot of pressure on my shoulders; I just like to approach every day as it is and work day to day. It’s been working for me ever since halfway through last year.”
The senior enters the Frozen Four holding Minnesota career records for goals against average (2.40) and save percentage (.914), even though the latter has dipped slightly this season.
The national semifinal against Boston College will be Patterson’s 64th straight start, and at one point he played over 3,400 consecutive minutes for the Gophers.
No early-season questions there, but Patterson did make an early statement for his team when the Gophers opened the WCHA schedule at defending champion Minnesota-Duluth.
“That was probably the most important weekend of our season,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “We had slow starts the previous few years and you have to go on a very difficult opening road trip within your league, and to be able to win those two games really gave us confidence. It gave us confidence in Kent that he could steal a game for us.”
At some point, all four earned that confidence, and that’s why they’ll be in the crease on Thursday.