Brown depends on Borelli, and the goalie has kept his team competitive

Brown coach Brendan Whittet didn’t hesitate a second when discussing the pressure on senior goalie Anthony Borelli.

“The pressure is on Anthony,” Whittet said. “He literally can’t make any mistakes in games. We’re snakebit. We have to be a defensive-minded team first through sound defensive habits.

“Anthony’s giving us a chance to win a championship in the ECAC. He’s making saves that he should make and ones he shouldn’t make. He’s given us the ability to be in every game and that’s all you can ask from a goaltender.”

Good point, considering Borelli played exactly zero minutes last season behind starter Mike Clemente.

But entering the final weekend of the regular season, the Bears (10-11-6, 6-8-6 ECAC Hockey) have 18 points and sit in eighth place in ECAC Hockey with two games remaining.

If Whittet hadn’t decided to put Borelli in net early in the season, Brown’s chances of hosting a first-round playoff series — or possible earning a bye — would be slim and none. And slim already had departed for Texas.

In 19 games (16 starts), Borelli is 8-6-6 with a microscopic 1.68 goals against average that ranks fifth in the nation and a .947 save percentage that is second in the nation. He’s also one of 16 semifinalists for the 61st Walter Brown Award, presented annually by the Gridiron Club of Boston to the best American-born college player in New England.

The two games that perhaps best underscore his ability and what he’s meant to Brown came midway through February.

Borelli made 44 saves in a 1-0 victory over then-10th ranked Yale on Feb. 13 and, three days later, he made a career-high 46 saves during a 2-0 loss at Union (the Dutchmen’s second goal sailed into an empty net).

After Providence waxed Brown 7-0 on Nov. 24, Borelli had an inkling Whittet might replace starter Marco De Fillippo.

“I can’t say that I was that surprised,” Borelli said. “The first game before I played, we were beaten badly by Providence. I got the start against Holy Cross [a 3-2 Brown victory] and was nervous because I hadn’t played last year.

“There’s pressure coming in because if you don’t play well you’re back on the bench. Ever since that game, things have been moving forward.”

What makes Borelli’s task even more challenging is that Brown isn’t exactly an offensive powerhouse. The Bears are averaging a mere 2.4 goals per game, 47th of 59 Division I teams.

“Even though that pressure is there, I treat every game the same,” he said. “There isn’t any added pressure I put on myself. If I give up one goal, I don’t want to give up a second one.

“I’d like to score goals which would be fun. But the only thing I can do is block shots so I try to do my best. I feel like I’ve gotten better with every game.”

Not only has Borelli been able to block out the goals he’s allowed but he’s also developed blinders when it comes to his stat sheet, which would be the envy of most goalies in the country.

“I try not to look at the stats because I know based on what I’ve done in the past, when I worry about stats it gets to my head,” he said. “The last couple of years, it’s helped me mature as a player. I’ve stopped looking at the stats and play game by game.

“At first you’re not going to be too sure how you’ll perform. If you perform well for one game and the next game, things get easier and easier. Then, it’s just natural from there.”

In Whittet’s opinion, what wasn’t “natural” was the way Borelli was playing in practice last season.

“Anthony and I had conversations over his time in practice and what I needed from him,” Whittet said. “The ability that I see from him now in games wasn’t borne out in practice. I told him I have to evaluate you based on practice. They’re flying past you left and right so that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence.

“This year he’s put in a lot of preparation for practice and works hard every day. He’s given us an opportunity to make something special out of this season. At one time, we were a team that wasn’t going to have a chance to win a championship in the ECAC. But Anthony’s our MVP. By far, he’s a guy that’s helped give Brown hockey a chance to move up in the standings.”

Even though he often faces an inordinate number of shots, Borelli isn’t the least bit fazed.

“I agree with other goalies in that it’s easier to play in a game when you’re getting 40-plus shots instead of 20 because it keeps your mind sharper,” he said. “As for finding it hard to play after not playing last season, after the first game — which was my first win — it was a big monkey off my back.

“I was able to focus on finding my rhythm and getting better.”