Rand Pecknold was unsure whom to start in goal.
The head coach at Quinnipiac has three goalies, two of who are freshmen. It was a big decision, because it would send a message to his team. He picked freshman Bud Fisher.
That was Oct. 5, and the Bobcats were headed to Michigan for a season-opening series at legendary Yost Arena. The highly-touted rookie went right into the Wolves’ den — literally.
“I thought Bud Fisher played pretty well in this environment, making his college debut in this place on national television,” Pecknold told me after the game, which was broadcast nationally by College Sports Television. “He gave us a great chance to win.”
Friday night, he did win. Pecknold tabbed his go-to goalie as the starter for Game 1 of the Bobcats’ first-ever playoff series, as they traveled to the Houston Field House to play RPI. The game, which featured the other half of the conference’s goaltending future (RPI rookie Mathias Lange), started slowly, as RPI didn’t mount much.
However, with Quinnipiac up 2-0 early, Lange started to stymie the ‘Cats, and RPI got going. When they did, Fisher took over the game.
“I thought he was a major factor in us winning Game 1,” said Pecknold, who notched his first ECACHL playoff win. “For a kid who just turned 19 to play a game like that on the road in the playoffs is pretty impressive.”
From that 30-save effort in a 3-1 loss at Michigan opening night to now, Fisher has made great strides. The native of Peterborough, Ont., who has pitched two shutouts this season, established himself as the number one early on. However, the season was anything but smooth.
As the season went on, Fisher started to fight the puck, as all good goalies will do eventually. The position, so much still one of situational saves and squaring to shooters, was being overplayed by Fisher.
Shots that were right at him were going past him, as he tried to do too much to make saves. Scrambles in the slot saw pucks finding holes and squeaking in.
Prior to a weekend series against RIT in late January, Pecknold started to refocus his young stopper. He took Fisher out before practices to work on the simple things that had made him successful earlier. Focus on the puck, reactions, tracking shots, composure, finding rebounds, balance. That balance, both physically and mentally, is the key to any goalie’s success, and the two went out and found what had been missing in that area.
Fisher led the ‘Cats to a sweep of RIT, and then went on a 6-3-1 roll down the stretch, beating St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Niagara, Union, Yale, and RPI and posting a 2.50 goals against in the process.
When it came time for the playoffs, Pecknold knew he had his man.
“He’s such a good athlete, and he is so competitive,” said Pecknold. “He gives us confidence.”
Reid Cashman has been the name and face of Quinnipiac hockey the past three seasons. He smiled Friday night when he mentioned that Fisher will be the guy who’ll get most of the attention heading into next season.
“He makes big saves, and he gives us confidence as a unit to jump in the play,” said the high-scoring defenseman.
Cashman, whose goalie in juniors was Jordan Parise (now at North Dakota), talked about Fisher the way Michigan Staters are talking about their own rookie goalie, Jeff Lerg, or the way Boston College raved about Cory Schneider in his debut campaign last season. Rookie goalies have a way of galvanizing a team. Just look at Peter Mannino last season as he backstopped Denver to its second consecutive national title.
“The bottom line is that he got better as tonight’s game went on, and he has done that for us so often in the second half. Where shots found ways through earlier on him, they aren’t any more. Remember, he wasn’t very busy early, but he kept his focus and stayed in it mentally.”
Fisher was spectacular in the game’s last 30 minutes, and was a big factor in several failed power-play attempts down low when RPI had numerical advantages. However, it was a point-blank save late in the third period, with RPI on the attack and down 2-1 where he made his biggest impression.
Leading scorer Kevin Croxton saw the play go deep, camped 20 feet dead out from Fisher, and waited. Keeping himself out of traffic, he was poised to tie the game on one perfect pass. It came from the low corner, and he bore down and launched it.
Fisher stretched, looking much like NHL great Tony Esposito did in his days in Chicago, and deflected it away with his waffle at the last minute.
Game-saving save. RPI didn’t get that close the rest of the night.
The test had been passed. Bud Fisher could make the big save in the playoffs.
Game 2 is Saturday, and the confidence should carry over. The result will show if Fisher stands the test as he did Friday.
“It’s a position that is predicated on being in position and letting pucks hit you,” Pecknold mentioned after the game.
For Fisher, it has once again become that simple.