With 2:06 remaining in the 2008 NCAA East Regional championship game, Michigan’s Carl Hagelin joined Steve Kampfer in the penalty box, leaving the Wolverines to protect a 2-0 lead against a Clarkson team that had not been shut out all season, and would have at least one more skater on the ice than Michigan for the remainder of the game.
What could the goalie charged with defending that lead possibly be thinking?
“I was just glad I got some work,” said Billy Sauer, minutes after holding down the fort to preserve a 2-0 Michigan win that sent the Wolverines to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2003. “I didn’t get a lot the whole game. It was actually a lot of fun. I kind of like to have to make a difference.
“I was just trying to keep myself in front of pucks as best I could, and keep them off the board. If they would have gotten one, momentum would have switched quite a bit.”
The two saves with which Sauer was credited during an ensuing Clarkson flurry in front of the net would seem to bear out Sauer’s cavalier attitude, but senior forward Chad Kolarik wasn’t about to let his teammate or the scorers get away with any modesty.
“I think he made eight saves, not two,” Kolarik said of Sauer’s late-game test. “I think they only gave him credit for two.”
Head coach Red Berenson was similarly impressed with his junior netminder, who was named to the East Regional All-Tournament Team after making 43 saves on 44 shots against Niagara and Clarkson.
“He stood on his head,” Berenson said of Sauer’s performance. “I don’t know how he made some of those saves, but he made them.”
Berenson is hardly the first person Sauer’s left scratching his head this season. After all, with the possible exception of North Dakota netminder Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, it’s hard to think of a player who entered the season as a bigger question mark, only to turn into one of his team’s greatest strengths.
And after Sauer closed out the 2006-07 season by allowing seven goals on 26 shots in an 8-5 loss to North Dakota in the semifinals of the West Regional, it’s not hard to blame observers for questioning whether the native of Walworth, N.Y., could supply the net presence needed to get the Wolverines to the Frozen Four.
By now, of course, much has been made of Sauer’s metamorphosis under the tutelage of former Wolverines netminder Josh Blackburn, completing the transition from an insecure 17-year old freshman who stopped fewer than 90 percent of the shots he saw in his first season to a four-time CCHA Goaltender of the Week and Player of the Month for December who backstopped the Wolverines to their first Great Lakes Invitational championship since 1997 and their first CCHA regular-season and tournament titles since 2005.
“He’s pretty much just put us on his back,” Kolarik said. “He’s done a great job this year.”
“I knew what kind of goaltender I could be,” Sauer, “and I just kind of kept going with that this year, and I got better.”
However, for every bitter memory that Sauer and the Wolverines swept away over the past six months, there was still one that remained: the tournament.
“That was a pretty tough thing to swallow,” Sauer said. “You don’t get over that too quick. All last summer, it’s kind of in your mind. It’s something where you want to come out and prove everybody wrong. It’s been a bit of a motivation for me, but at the same time you can’t think about it too much, let it keep me away from my real game.”
With the Wolverines on their way to Denver, the demons have been exorcised.
“It shows how mentally tough he is,” Kolarik added. “When that happens to a goalie at any level, they can just crumble and just end their career. It’s happened to a bunch of guys in the NHL.”
That mental toughness has shown through in Sauer’s refusal to crumble at any point throughout his junior season. Every single questionable performance — 13 saves on 16 shots against Ohio State, 30 saves on 35 shots against Miami, 17 saves on 22 shots against Michigan State — has been followed by a commanding effort: 27 saves on 29 shots against Bowling Green, 25 saves on 27 shots against Lake Superior, and 26 saves on 28 shots against the Spartans.
Obviously, there is no more room for error now, which is why Sauer — while very happy to turn in a masterful performance in front of family and friends who made the three-and-a-half-hour trek from Walworth — was quick to deflect talk of his individual honor to discussion of the team’s success.
“The most important thing is getting out of here with two wins,” Sauer said. “Personal successes are great, but how the team does is most important.”
Now, the team is heading to Denver, someplace Sauer, a seventh-round draft choice of the Colorado Avalanche, hopes to see a great deal more of some day.
It’s also the place where North Dakota dealt him that infamous defeat, but that doesn’t matter right now.
After all, when it comes to Billy Sauer’s ability to succeed in the Wolverine net, there are no more questions.
He’s shown that he has all the answers.
As Sauer himself said, “I’m just prepared for everything now.”