DULUTH, Minn. — There was a Matt McNeely cheering section Saturday night at Amsoil Arena. Approximately 30 family members were on hand to watch the USA Under-18 goalie from Burnsville, Minn., face his future team in an exhibition game.
Minnesota Duluth’s players were getting their first look at the 6-foot-2, 204-pound recruit, in his second year with the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
McNeely, 17, made a commitment to UMD a year ago and will be a freshman this fall, joining Kenny Reiter, Aaron Crandall and Christian Gaffy as goalie candidates for 2011-12.
“I’ve been looking forward to this game since the first game of the season and I’ve really looked forward to being in the new rink,” said McNeely. “I’ve seen pictures and video, and talked to one of my friends who was there, and he said it’s the best rink he’s ever seen. We just want to give UMD a run for its money and play a good game.”
McNeely did his part with 42 saves, as the Bulldogs gained a 4-1 victory before an announced crowd of 6,139. David Grun and Jack Connolly, on a second-period power play, gave UMD a 2-0 lead, and it was 2-1 until Keegan Flaherty and Jake Hendrickson added late third-period goals. North Dakota recruit Rocco Grimaldi, a centerman from Rosmoor, Calif., scored for the U.S.-18s. McNeely was named player of the game. UMD led in shots on goal 46-28.
Reiter and Crandall split time for UMD and played well.
“These are hard games to play because you’re expected to win,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “We had some chances and Matt made some good saves. His team has some good size and good players, and it was a good test of us.”
The U-18 team will play about 60 games this season, 44 on the road. Most of its games are in the U.S. Hockey League and the remainder in international play and against U.S. colleges. The U-18s were 0-8 against Division I teams entering Saturday’s game, with road losses at four Western Collegiate Hockey Association schools: Denver 8-1, Colorado College 7-1, North Dakota 2-1 and Minnesota 9-0 Friday in Minneapolis. McNeely, sharing time with University of Michigan recruit John Gibson, already had some extra work this weekend, replacing Gibson in the second period against Minnesota.
In McNeely’s starts versus college competition, he made 36 saves in a 6-0 loss at Cornell, 44 saves in the loss to No. 13 Colorado College, 38 saves in the loss to No. 2 North Dakota and 34 saves in a 5-1 loss at No. 14 Maine on Sunday. The one-goal loss against North Dakota he ranked as the “best game of my life.”
“Because we often play teams with older players, the heat is on our goaltenders to be prepared every night and play to their potential to pull our team along,” said U-18 coach Ron Rolston, a former Michigan Tech winger who spent 11 years as a Division I assistant at four schools, most recently at Boston College. “Matt is a big, athletic, aggressive goalie who takes up a lot of the net and has developed well in adverse situations against good teams. We had a good effort level tonight, but this has been a long travel week for us.”
McNeely was a backup for two years at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minn., before joining the USA U-17 team in 2009-10 in Ann Arbor. He was 9-18-3 last season with a 4.16 goals-against average and .896 save percentage. He’s 6-8 this season with a .358 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.
He’ll be the third U.S. National Team Development Program to join UMD, following senior defenseman Trent Palm and freshman defenseman Justin Faulk.
“The first year, being on my own (in Ann Arbor) was something new. This year has gone so much better and, working with our goalie coach (Joe Exter), I feel head-and-shoulders above where I was,” said McNeely.
When Amy McNeely got the U-18 schedule in September and was told her son would be the likely starter against UMD, she rounded up grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, most from Shakopee and Prior Lake, Minn., and made hotel reservations. However, there wasn’t much visiting time. The family greeted McNeely with signs and red-white-and-blue hats in the Amsoil Arena basement and then the U-18 team got on the bus back to Minneapolis to make a Sunday morning flight.