Goaltending situation an ‘incredible luxury’ for Denver, but decisions approach

This time last season, Denver coach George Gwozdecky was looking to the student section for goaltending help. He’s fortunate to have better options this season.

So far, junior Sam Brittain started each Friday game for the third-ranked Pioneers with five goals allowed. Senior Adam Murray started the first two Saturdays with 2011-12 All-WCHA Rookie Team member Juho Olkinuora suspended to start the season.

Murray allowed two goals in both of his starts and Olkinuora allowed one in his debut win Saturday against No. 15 St. Cloud State.

“Any coach is fortunate to have two goaltenders at this level that can give their team a chance to win,” Gwozdecky said. “We have the incredible luxury of having three. In my career, I’ve never had this much depth in my goaltenders.”

The Oct. 27 game against Michigan Tech was Olkinuora’s first night he was eligible to play but Gwozdecky figured he needed more time to prepare.

Denver’s goaltenders have faced 29.2 shots per game but all three have performed well. Brittain has the second-highest save percentage in the WCHA at .946. Murray sports a .935 and Olkinuora has a .952. They’re excellent numbers, especially when you realize one of them will be a practice goalie before too long.

That decision was made for Gwozdecky after Murray pulled up lame last Friday with an undisclosed injury. He is “out for an undetermined amount of time.”

“We indicated to all three goaltenders that we weren’t going to be able to use all three,” Gwozdecky said. “For their development and for the team, we needed to determine whether we had a No. 1 or if we were going to go with a tandem.

“It wouldn’t do us any good to try to play all three on a consistent basis, so they understood there was going to be a competition in the first month and a half.”

Brittain did not play last season until January while he recovered from offseason knee surgery. That put Murray in the starting role to begin the 2010-11 season. He soon injured his groin, which opened the door for Olkinuora, who was brought in a year early to back up Murray.

Gwozdecky recruited Zack Hope, a junior who played on Denver’s rugby club, to serve as the practice goalie. With Murray hurt, Hope dressed and traveled as the main backup for 13 games. He remains on the roster this season as a fourth netminder.

“He never had any plans to play hockey at DU,” Gwozdecky said. “You can imagine going from watching the games from the student section to potentially being the starting goalie. It had to be quite an experience.”

Other teams are using the platoon system as well waiting for someone to seize the top job.

Michigan Tech freshman Pheonix Copley (.854 save percentage, 4.30 goals against average) has played six games and senior Kevin Genoe (.913, 2.64) three, including two goals allowed in a loss to Nebraska-Omaha. At Colorado College, junior Josh Thorimbert (.892, 2.84) has started six of eight games but senior Joe Howe (.926, 2.00) has better numbers.

North Dakota’s Clarke Saunders is off to a great start in Grand Forks after transferring from Alabama-Huntsville. He has a .933 save percentage and has allowed fewer than two goals per game but it is too early to declare him the starter. He split the weekend with Zane Gothberg against Boston University.

Alaska-Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak has split time between Rob Gunderson (.889) and Chris Kamal (.896) through six games.

“We need consistency in that position,” Shyiak said. “Ideally, I’d like one of them to earn the starting job but we’re OK platooning as long as we need to.”

Scott Sandelin is also in platoon mode with his Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, who will depend a lot on goaltending with an offense that lost almost all of its firepower this offseason.

Freshman Matt McNeely (.935) held Notre Dame to one goal on 30 shots in his debut Oct. 18. That earned him both starts against Wisconsin, when he stopped 43 of the 47 shots in a loss and tie.

“We might ride Matt for a while and see how he does,” Sandelin said. “We’ll certainly look at how the goalies play and how the guys play in front of them. In Matt’s case, winning that game on the road at Notre Dame definitely gave him a lot of confidence and he’s followed it up with two pretty good games.”

The incumbent, Aaron Crandall (.898, 3.05), started the season-opening series against Ohio State but has played in only one game since. As of Tuesday, Sandelin didn’t know who would get start this weekend at Nebraska-Omaha.

League’s players looking scruffy for a good cause

Now entering the second weekend of play this month, WCHA fans will notice that some of their favorite players may be a little less clean-cut than usual.

November, thanks to the past efforts of NHL players, is now “Movember.” The term is used in support of the global charity “Movember” that encourages men to grow mustaches this month to raise awareness and funds for prostate and testicular cancer initiatives.

“It is fun for the team,” said Colorado College senior goalie Joe Howe, who is one of several of his teammates sporting facial hair. “The big thing is to raise awareness.”

The league’s players are certainly doing their part. All but two players on the Alaska-Anchorage roster are growing mustaches while the entire Bemidji State team is taking part. The Beavers will host a benefit for their Nov. 17 home game against Michigan Tech to raise money for the American Cancer Society by selling special T-shirts. To add to the fun, the school is giving out fake mustaches to the first 1,000 fans.

Some of the Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin players are taking part as well as all of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. The entire North Dakota team is taking part and will post their updated pictures sometime Thursday morning at this page.

Go to us.movember.com for more information on how to join in or donate.

Butters’ sudden departure only adds to Wisconsin’s struggles

Third-year assistant coach Bill Butters’ sudden departure from the Wisconsin program, announced by the school on Wednesday, certainly does not bode well for a Badgers team (1-4-1, 0-2 WCHA) that was swept at home last weekend.

Such sudden instability, even the departure of the defensemen coach, cannot help an offense tied for last in the league with Bemidji State (11 goals) and dead last with an average of 1.83 goals in six games.

A search for his replacement has begun, according to a UW news release.

“It’s time for me to move on from coaching,” said Butters, who was the Gophers co-captain in 1972-73 and coached at Minnesota from 1985 to 1995. “I have appreciated Coach [Mike] Eaves’ support and friendship as I have come to this conclusion. Mike and I believe it will be in the best interests of both myself and the program if I take this step and return to my family and continue to develop the other pursuits on my horizon.”

Butters told reporters Wednesday that he’s leaving the team to answer a call to ministry. Butters and his wife, Debby, have been married 39 years. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Wisconsin is off this weekend before traveling to No. 2 Minnesota Nov. 16-17.

Gut-check weekend ahead for No. 2 Minnesota

Underperformance, best exemplified by being outplayed and outhustled by Minnesota State in a road loss last Saturday, points to this weekend being an important one for Minnesota to right the ship.

Yes, it is the second weekend of November, but a team with the preseason hype of No. 2 Minnesota needs to start taking care of its business. That means soundly beating Canisius (not winning 1-0 at home); sweeping a home-and-home series against a team picked to finish toward the bottom of the WCHA (Minnesota State), not splitting; and leaving last-place Alaska-Anchorage this weekend with four points.

“Our goaltenders have faced Minnesota a lot in the last couple of years and we know what they bring to the table,” UAA coach Dave Shyiak said. “We’ve had past success against [Minnesota]. This is a new year but our approach is the same to play to our strengths and expose their weaknesses.”

“We can be better, we need to be better if we are going to be the type of team we want to be,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said during his Monday radio show.

The season is a long journey as every team tries to develop into a contender. For Minnesota, this weekend would be a good time to take a couple steps.

Quick hits

• Alaska-Anchorage is teaming with the U.S. Track & Field Cross Country Coaches Association to raise money for the city of Joplin, Mo. — the host of the 2012 NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships — which was devastated by a tornado in May 2011. The Seawolves running squads will collect donations for a “Fill the Shoe” promotion at the UAA vs. Minnesota game Friday at Sullivan Arena.

• Bemidji State goaltender Andrew Walsh’s .955 save percentage through four games is fourth-best in Division I. The Beavers have the third-best penalty kill (93.5 percent) in the nation.

• Denver’s Nick Shore is fourth in the nation in points per game with 1.83 while teammate Joey LaLeggia leads the nation’s defensemen (1.33). The Pioneers are in the top five in goals scored per game (4.33), goals allowed (1.67) and power play (28 percent) and have the best scoring margin (2.67) in Division I.

• St. Cloud State center Nic Dowd is tied for third nationally in goals (6). Kalle Kossila is tied for the national lead in points per game (1.33) by rookies. Captain Ben Hanowski is listed as week-to-week (upper-body injury) and coach Bob Motzko hopes he’ll be back by Christmas, according to the St. Cloud Times. The Huskies’ opponent this week, North Dakota, will be without Michael Parks, who was injured during an exhibition game and has not made a regular-season appearance.