ST. PAUL, Minn. — When a team makes it all the way to the Frozen Four, goaltending is often the X-factor. That’s certainly the case for all four teams meeting at the Xcel Energy Center this weekend.
Maybe a little more unusual is that all four teams are backstopped, essentially, by first-year starters. Minnesota Duluth (Hunter Shepherd), Michigan (Hayden Lavigne), Notre Dame (Cale Morris) and Ohio State (Sean Romeo) all had varying degrees of experience coming into the season — most of it negligible at the college level — but all have impressed their coaches with how they’ve performed under fire.
“I hoped someone was going to step up,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said of his goaltending corps, which was left without much collegiate experience after the departure of Hunter Miska last season. Miska led the Bulldogs to the national title game as a freshman but left to sign a contract with the Arizona Coyotes shortly after.
The two returning options for Sandelin also were freshmen last season, but neither Shepherd nor Nick Deery had much collegiate experience behind Miska.
“I thought we had two good goalies returning that didn’t have a lot of college game experience. They were good goalies in junior,” Sandelin said. “Going into the year we knew we had two we hoped could play. Was one of them going to emerge? We didn’t know. We gave them both opportunities the first month.”
The two shared time in October but Shepherd really solidified the position in November. He’s since started 39 games for UMD and has a sterling 1.95 goals-against average to go along with a .924 save percentage.
“It’s very similar to what we had in Miska last year,” said Shepherd’s teammate Karson Kuhlman. “It’s been fun to watch Hunter grow this year. His confidence is through the roof right now, which is what you need this time of year in a goaltender. He made some big saves and won us some big games down the stretch. It’s important to have that in a goaltender.”
Michigan had a similar situation with Lavigne and fellow sophomore Jack LaFontaine. The two had alternated in net as freshmen and did so again as sophomores but neither of them held down the top position until the second half of this season.
Lavigne took over the starting spot for good during the second game of the Great Lakes Invitational against Michigan State. Michigan won 6-4 and coach Mel Pearson said he named Lavigne the permanent starter for the next weekend’s series against Notre Dame.
Pearson said Lavigne has looked confident ever since. He started every Michigan game since Jan. 2 and since then has posted a 2.65 goals-against and a .916 save percentage.
“He had to earn that confidence,” Pearson said. “He had to get a few games together to get that and, fortunately for us, he did. I’d put his numbers up against anybody the second half of the year.”
Notre Dame also had a seeming void at the goalie position after the early departure of Cal Petersen last season, but coach Jeff Jackson never had a doubt about how good his replacement would be. Cale Morris ended up being both a Hobey Baker Award and Mike Richter Award finalist with a 1.91 goals-against average and .945 save percentage.
“We recruited Cale to be our heir apparent to Cal two years ago,” Jackson said. “I’m not sure that I expected him to play at the level he’s playing at this year. But all the credit goes to him, because if it wasn’t for last year I’m not sure where he would be this year.”
Morris learned a lot from Petersen.
“Sitting in behind Cal Petersen, a world-class goalie, I knew it was going to be a great opportunity for me to soak in as much knowledge about the game on and off the ice,” Morris said. “I think I developed as much on the ice as off the ice, learning from him as being the captain as well, so he definitely took me under his wing.”
Ohio State also features a new goaltender, but Sean Romeo had plenty of experience coming into the season despite never playing a minute for the Buckeyes before the year. The North Carolina native transferred in from Maine, where he played 23 games as a freshman and two as a sophomore before deciding to make the move to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes lost three senior goaltenders to graduation after last season, but OSU coach Steve Rohlik said Romeo learned plenty from them and worked hard to earn the starting spot.
“Losing three senior goalies is a little nerve-racking coming into the year, but when Sean came in last year I knew I had something special,” Rohlik said. “He knew he was never going to play a game last year. He could have taken weeks off, months off, said, ‘Hey, I’ll be ready next year.’ But not Sean. Every day he was the same. There was a purpose, why he came to the rink last year. It was for this moment this year. He stepped in and took advantage. He’s taken the ball and he’s run with it.”