Stopping Power

Longish freshman goaltending sensation Ben Bishop has enjoyed a promising start to his career as a Black Bears goalie, but the 6-foot-7 inch St. Louis Blues draft pick almost didn’t make it to the University of Maine.

“I saw him play in Boston at Hockey Night [in Boston] a couple of years ago and I actually didn’t like him that much … but there’s been a vast improvement in body maturity since that last time, and then I saw him last year,” said Maine assistant coach and head recruiter Grant Standbrook. “Even when I saw him last year [with the Texas Tornado of the USHL], I couldn’t get a good read on him because the players in front of him were so good.”

“I had two other goaltenders in my top three and the other two were playing in Saskatchewan, so I wanted to watch him [Bishop] practice,” added Standbrook, who is legendary for his hockey recruiting trips around North America and beyond. “I was watching him practice and I liked what saw.”

But as Tornados general manager/head coach Tony Curtale fired pucks at the goliath of a goalie, Curtale managed to slip a softy by Bishop from the blue line.

“Tony skated around the ice saying ‘Where’s my scholarship … where’s my scholarship?’ and I said, “Tony, if we give one to you, then we won’t have one for your goalie,” recalled Standbrook, chuckling at the memory.

The rest of the story this season amounts to a very tall tale as word filtered around this summer about the incoming freshman — first in the spring when Maine released information about an incoming recruiting class that included a 6-foot-7 netminder prospect from St. Louis. The chatter crystallized into fact when first, Bishop was nabbed in the second round of the 2005 NHL Draft by his hometown St. Louis Blues — and then, just a week before the season, standout senior-to-be Jimmy Howard opted to turn pro with the Detroit Red Wings.

The first event raised expectations for this rarest-of-rare breeds — an elongated starting goaltender who looks more like he should be dunking basketballs than deflecting pucks — and the second allowed the rangy Bishop and a sophomore from Apple Valley High School in Minnesota with exactly nine games and 150 minutes of Division I hockey experience — Matt Lundin — to leap into the goaltending breach for the Black Bears.

Rather than view the situation as a one-way ticket to the pressure cooker, both youngsters eagerly awaited to chance to earn playing time, to make the Black Bears faithful scratch their heads and say ‘Jimmy who?’.

“We [didn’t] really feel any pressure at all heading into this season,” said Lundin. “It was more of looking forward to an opportunity — to be able to get out there and play a little bit. I wouldn’t say I’m really surprised about the success that we’ve had so far, but so much of that is the guys playing in front of us, too.”

It couldn’t be an easy task heading into a Hockey East season with a freshman and sophomore taking over one of the richest legacies in college sports — namely, being the men behind the mask at Maine.

“Now that we’ve had such a strong line of goalies over the years, it becomes one of those things where if you’re one of those elite goalies you want to go somewhere where there’s a proud tradition of goaltenders,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “It’s no different than if a baseball team had a great tradition of pitching. It just feeds off itself and that’s where we’re at now — we’re very proud of it.”

From Mike Dunham to Garth Snow to Mike Morrison to Frank Doyle and Jimmy Howard, the string of excellence and prestige fronting the Alfond Arena crease goes along with each player dropping into the butterfly, sponging up the rebounds and attempting to paddle down blistering shots.

“I wanted to go to Maine probably even two years before [older brother and Maine defenseman] Mike ended up there,” said Lundin. “I remember thinking back in junior high that, if I played college hockey, I would want to play at either Maine or Minnesota.

“Having my brother [on the team] didn’t hurt, but I always loved the history of goaltenders at the school, how they conducted themselves on the ice and how they recruited players. They’re just class people all around,” added Lundin.

While an amiable, humble Maine coaching staff acknowledges the great tradition of pipemasters in Orono, they refuse to take credit for their development — despite all evidence that points to the double barrel of proper recruiting and top-notch instruction.

“I don’t know what kind of an attraction it is,” said a tongue-in-cheek Standbrook. “All I know is that the better the quality of goaltenders we recruit, then we don’t have to worry about my lack of coaching ability.”

The very same Maine legacy and quality coaching staff that drew both youngsters into the fold also brought forth intense pressure heading into the season — a campaign for which expectations had been reduced with Howard’s departure.

But it’s been mostly success for each ‘tender so far. Through the first two months of the season Bishop has posted a solid 2.17 goals against average and an equally fine .917 save percentage in 10 starts.

For his part, the first-year stopper loves the idea that he’s a lonely last line of defense ready to take on a squad of angry ice attackers.

“I like the pressure,” said Bishop.

“I like how it’s up to you,” added the St. Louis native. “I play tennis a lot and I hate playing doubles because I like the pressure. I like it when it’s all on my shoulders.”

Just as Bishop craves the pressure, the Maine coaching staff marvels at what they’ve already seen of the literal and figurative big recruit — and they expect to see even more in his future.

“He’s such a good athlete. He’s an outstanding tennis player and table tennis, and he just needs to get stronger,” said Standbrook. “Here’s a guy that’s 220 pounds, and he’s going to be 235 or 240 in a couple of years.

While Bishop is like the shiny new toy under Maine’s Christmas tree, Lundin has quietly gone about dominating his starts — putting up staggering numbers in the early portion of the season and demanding more ice time through his netminding.

The sophomore was simply looking for some playing time, but he has instead compiled a 5-1 record and a pair of shutouts through the end of November. Mix in a 0.96 goals against average, a .957 save percentage and Lundin’s fiery demeanor, and you’ve concocted quite a competitive situation in the Black Bears crease.

“This is so far, so good,” said Lundin of his second season at Maine.

“I think my biggest strength is my competitiveness on the ice,” added Lundin. “I hate giving up goals and I hate losing, and I’ll do anything in my power to keep that puck out the net. I’m trying to work more on reading the play in front of me and being quicker with my reactions.”

With Bishop and Lundin pushing hard for playing time, improving each game and making each other better in the process, a possible preseason weakness has instead morphed into an impregnable wall ready to turn away Hockey East comers.

“I think it was a little bit of a pleasant surprise, despite the fact that we recruited them and we obviously believed in them,” said Whitehead. “There’s always an adjustment for a freshman coming in like Ben and for Matt, who didn’t play a lot of games last season.

“I’m excited they adjusted quicker than we thought they might, so it has been great.”

The Matt and Ben tandem (perhaps they should be called the Good Will goaltenders) again have Maine atop Hockey East with a 1.69 team goals against average, and sit third in the nation through November — trailing only Wisconsin’s ridiculous 1.50 goals against average and Miami’s 1.63.

Not bad for a 6-foot-7 freshman from the hockey hotbed of St. Louis, and a sophomore who nearly reported to junior hockey this season before Howard opted for the NHL.

“We did have some apprehension going into the season, but those apprehensions have been allayed by the play of both boys,” said Standbrook.

Just don’t ask them to garner any style points with their graceful butterfly flops, as Bishop feels like he’s far from ballerina-like out there.

“No, not at all,” answered Bishop when asked if he thought if guarded the crease with anything approaching grace. “I think my style is a combination of both [butterfly and positional styles]. People tell me I really don’t have a style, so I just try to do anything I can to stop the puck.”