It was the season opener and the Maine Black Bears were eating the Vermont Catamounts alive. Four goals on 18 shots in the first 20 minutes. For all intents and purposes, the game was over just that quickly.
On the bench during that first period sat a 19-year old rookie. Most assumed he would still be there when the final horn sounded. But as the Catamounts came out for the second period, it wasn’t Travis Russell leading them onto the ice. Instead, it was a tall, lanky kid with a No. 29 on his back.
It was Joseph James Fallon.
The freshman allowed three goals over the final 40 minutes, making 14 saves, many of the stellar variety. His performance opened numerous eyes that afternoon.
Thirteen years ago it was Fallon’s eyes that were opened. As a six-year old growing up in Bemidji, Minn., he was glued to his television as the Minnesota North Stars competed for the Stanley Cup against Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I watched Jon Casey in 1991,” says Fallon about the North Stars’ netminder and fellow Minnesotan, “and I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
The Catamounts are thrilled he did. After the Maine contest, Fallon started UVM’s next game and shut out Sacred Heart for his first collegiate win. He followed that up with a 34-save effort in a loss to Boston University and then allowed six tallies to Niagara before Vermont turned back to Russell.
The junior netminder, so strong down the stretch last season, also lost to the Purple Eagles, who earned a sweep in Gutterson Fieldhouse. UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon, very emotional after the weekend, turned back to his rookie for salvation from what was already a three-game losing streak. Except it wasn’t going to be that simple.
UVM was heading on the road. The destination: Duluth. The opponent: then-No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth. At stake: facing a team so solid that the Cats could be sent home in complete disarray. For Fallon: a trip to his home state, a chance to start against the nation’s best team and the need to stop the bleeding. In other words, the kind of pressure that could crush a normal person.
But this isn’t your average Joe.
“[His] composure and focus is at the level that most juniors, seniors, or even pro goalies strive for,” admires Sneddon.
Fallon’s performance that weekend turned the season around for the Catamounts. Twenty-nine saves in a 3-2 upset of the Bulldogs and 40 stops in a 2-2 tie.
And that’s when you knew.
“Joe has been our early season MVP,” says Sneddon. “We’ve had solid contributions from our key players like [Scott] Mifsud, [Brady] Leisenring and [Jaime] Sifers, but to have a freshman goalie come in and dominate games the way he has is truly special for our program.”
Thanks in large part to Fallon, UVM is rolling along on a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2) to up the club’s record to 5-4-2 — including a second-place 3-0-1 mark in the league. Vermont didn’t win its fifth game last season until February 13.
“I’m seeing the puck pretty good,” explains Fallon, “and keeping the game pretty simple. The team is playing really well in front of me.”
A tall goaltender, similar in frame to the younger editions of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, Fallon stands 6-foot-3, which means that when he plays his angles well, he covers most of the net with his body. He’s listed as a stand-up goalie, but Fallon thinks his style is more versatile.
“People say I’m a stand-up, but I like to think of myself as a hybrid,” he explains. “If I need to go down, I’ll go down. If I need to stay up, I’ll stay up. You need to have patience in making that decision.”
The hybrid style of goaltending is one of the reasons Brodeur has been so successful in the NHL. Fallon doesn’t study just one NHL netminder, however, he takes a little bit from multiple sources.
“I look at whoever is doing well. So, last year it was [Calgary’s] Miikka Kiprusoff and [Tampa Bay’s] Nikolai Khabibulin.”
But Fallon, like other rookies in the ECACHL, also admits that there is an adjustment period to playing at a new level.
“There are bigger players than what you are used to,” he says. “It’s harder to see the puck. They also like to one-time the puck more on the power play.”
To make the needed adjustments, Fallon works on reacting to these new elements during practice.
“Practice and repetition,” he explains, “and maybe you play a little deeper in the net on the power play.”
So far, so good on the ice. But what about away from the rink?
The youngest of Martin and Shirley Fallon’s four children, Joe’s oldest brother Michael went to Minnesota, his sister LeAnn played soccer at Bemidji State and brother Daniel graduated from Minnesota-Duluth.
It begs the question, “how did a kid from a good Minnesota family end up in Burlington?”
“I wanted the chance to play every day,” Fallon says, “and Vermont offered me a good scholarship. I also thought the move to Hockey East was a good opportunity. We’ll have the chance to bring in some new prospects.”
Already, the impending move to a new conference at season’s end is paying off for the Catamounts.
“The team has great camaraderie,” says Fallon. “Everyone gets along with each other and coach has a good plan for us. As long as we follow it, we’ll be successful.
“Our goal is to win the ECACs. This is our last chance. For me, my goal is to help the team out.”
That’s something Fallon has already accomplished, but he is also keenly aware of what he still needs to work on during his time at UVM.
“I need to get stronger in my legs and overall better technique, with quick foot movement. To be a good positional goaltender.”
Sneddon isn’t worried.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” explains the coach, “that he will emerge as one of the best goalies in the nation during his time at Vermont.”
And after his days at UVM are over? The poised young man nearly answers the question before it is asked.
“I would definitely want to turn pro,” Fallon says with a hint of excitement in his voice. “I just hope the opportunity arises.”