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Hope lies between the pipes

Max Collins/Daily
Senior goalie Bryan Hogan. Buy this photo

BY RYAN KARTJE
Daily Sports Writer
Published October 21, 2009

Marty Turco was all alone.

Ten minutes of overtime had elapsed in the 1998 NCAA Hockey Championship game, and Boston College’s leading scorer, Marty Reasoner, charged toward Turco after evading the Michigan defense. He stared straight at the Wolverines’ senior goalie, who stood calmly between the pipes.

Around him stood a raucous home crowd of Boston College faithful, all standing feverishly at Boston’s legendary Fleet Center in hopes of conquering Michigan – the closest thing college hockey had to a dynasty at the time.

The Wolverines watched breathlessly from the bench as something their head coach, Red Berenson, had told them at the end of regulation reverberated in their heads.

“Don’t worry, we’ve got Turco.”

As Reasoner readied himself for the most important shot of his career, the winningest goalie in NCAA history poked the puck out of Reasoner’s control, halting the threat to the Michigan's second National Championship in three years.

In overtime, Turco watched an Eagle shot soar past him and off the crossbar, and heard another ping loudly off the post. Both were mere inches from deciding the game. But this last save meant something more to a scrappy Michigan team that Berenson knew wasn’t the most talented on the ice that night.

Turco only had to wait eight more minutes for his vindication.

Freshman Josh Langfield curled seamlessly around the net and surprised an unsuspecting Boston College goalie to capture the Wolverines another national championship.

“That was the feeling that year,” Berenson says today. “We’re going to play hard, and we knew Marty was going to hold the fort.”

After his most talented team fell short the year before, Berenson knew how important a goalie like Turco was to the team’s playoff run.

“He took us to four Frozen Fours and he won two of them and he should’ve won the third one,” Berenson said. “I just can’t say enough about the confidence that a good goalie gives everyone else.”

As Turco skated off the Fleet Center ice that night, he took with him one of the most accomplished goaltending résumés in college hockey history.

A benchmark for Michigan goaltending was born. And despite the multitude of capable goalies since Turco, none have matched his playoff savvy.

“We just felt like he was invincible,” Berenson said.

Josh Blackburn, the Wolverines’ goalie from 1998 to 2002, aided in two Frozen Four runs but came home empty-handed on both occasions.

Al Montoya, Michigan most touted goalie recruit since Turco, allowed four straight goals to Colorado College in 2005 and surrendered a 3-0 lead as the team’s national championship hopes slipped away.

After Montoya, the Wolverines were made victims of epic playoff goaltending collapses from Noah Ruden (five goals to North Dakota in 2006) and Billy Sauer (10 goals in two postseason losses).

Eleven years after the 1998 Championship game, Turco’s shadow still looms over the Michigan goalie position. Since then, nearly ever season of excellent goaltending has been tarnished by poor postseason showings between the pipes.

Last year, current Michigan goaltender Bryan Hogan filed onto the ice in Bridgeport, Conn. to take on an overmatched Air Force team. Despite seeing just 13 shots, his lowest total in a Michigan uniform, the junior allowed two goals as Air Force upset the Wolverines, 2-0.

“At any position you’re in, you feel like you’ve let yourself down or your team down when you lose a game like that,” Hogan said.

This year, with new hopes of a national championship, Berenson knows that Hogan will be one of the main pieces if Michigan is destined to break its 11-year title drought.

“Somebody told me a long time ago, when you get to this tournament, the team with the best goalie wins,” Berenson said after the loss to Air Force.

It’s just a question of whether Hogan is ready to be the first Michigan goalie to step out of Turco’s championship shadow.

Competitive fire

At 10 years old, Bryan Hogan was already prepared for the intensity of college hockey.

The only problem was that he was still just a Novi Ice Cat.

Hogan remembers one specific video of his Pee-Wee hockey days that epitomized the Highland Township native’s young tenacity.

“I had gotten scored on … and, I swear to God, I went nuts, I hit the post, I almost hit the referee with my stick,” Hogan said. “Growing up, I had a problem with getting so angry when I let a goal in … I was nuts.”

And it wasn’t just during games. L.J. Scarpace, a former Michigan goalie and Hogan’s hockey coach with the USA Eagles, recalls multiple occasions when Hogan would “have a word with his teammates” when they scored on him or took a shot he didn’t like.

“You could see him get so intense and emotional," Scarpace said. "As a 10- or 11-year-old, that’s not something you usually see that young."

That intensity was a driving force for Hogan, who took his persona to Detroit Catholic Central High School where he won an MHSAA State championship in 2005. From there, as a little-known prospect, Hogan found his way onto the roster of the USHL’s Lincoln Stars and wrestled the starting job away from Michigan commit Steve Jakiel halfway through his rookie season.

Hogan wasn’t expected to steal the position so quickly, but after four wins in the playoffs, he kept the job through the next year. That was enough for Berenson and the Michigan staff, who extended a scholarship offer to the Lincoln goalie in the offseason. A year later when Hogan made his way to Ann Arbor, Jakiel saw the writing on the wall and transferred, leaving Hogan as the only capable goaltender behind junior Billy Sauer.

Soon after coming to Ann Arbor, Hogan’s fiery reputation resurfaced.

Often times when he is scored on in practice, Hogan slams his stick down or sends curses echoing throughout Yost Ice Arena. Junior backup goalie Shawn Hunwick said his favorite form of Hogan's episodes are when he shoots the puck back at players who have scored on him, even if the puck almost always misses its target.

“It’s just to send a message back to them,” Hunwick said. “ ‘Next time, you’re not going to beat me.’ ”

Although the team routinely pesters Hogan for his behavior during practice, senior captain Chris Summers knows that the junior goaltender’s tenacity is his greatest contribution to the Wolverines.

“All goalies are out of their minds,” Summers said. “And he’s the most passionate about his position compared to any other goalie I’ve ever played with.”

Hogan has little idea what made him the fanatical goalie that he is today. But without that unrelenting ambition to be a perfect goaltender, he never would have established himself as the starting goaltender last year over record-setting netminder Billy Sauer.

It was a goalie controversy that underscored the Wolverines’ entire season, one where no goalie could safely be called No. 1.

Battling between the pipes

Billy Sauer’s junior campaign was something college goaltenders dream about.

Thirty wins. Four shutouts. A goals against average (1.95) and save percentage (.924) that are tops in Michigan history.

But the one pockmark on his résumé is what ultimately led to his fall from grace as Michigan’s starting goaltender.

After surrendering seven goals to North Dakota in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament, Sauer allowed three goals in the first period of Michigan’s Frozen Four game against Notre Dame. Berenson pulled Sauer after the terrible first period. Hogan, a freshman at the time, took his place between the pipes in the do-or-die playoff game, allowing only one goal in overtime and one in regulation, but it wasn't enough. Sauer's poor performance doomed the Wolverines with a 5-4 overtime loss.

“The reason (the goalie battle) came about was because Billy Sauer’s playoff record was really not that strong in his first year or two,” Berenson said. “For our team to be the team we want, we’re going to have to have more competitive goaltending.”

The two had very little in common as goalies. Blackburn, now Michigan’s goalie coach, describes Sauer as “laid back” both off the ice and on. But his playoff collapses showed that Sauer was more prone to hot and cold performances. Conversely, Hogan was even-keeled between the pipes, sustaining focus through most games, despite his hot-headed practice demeanor.

Hogan maintains that the two had a healthy position battle, but he’ll be the first to say that the two weren’t the best of friends.

“It is like every other goalie competition,” Hogan said. “You’re both fighting for a position, but you don’t want to get too close.”

According to Hogan, the competition strengthened his game mentally and improved his focus on the ice.

And on a team like Michigan, a goaltender’s focus often becomes the deciding factor in close games.

Michigan's defense shut down the Falcons' offense in the Wolverines' first-round NCAA Tournament loss last season. But the two goals that slipped past Hogan came on great scoring opportunities after he had stood in net for several minutes straight without seeing any action.

Such a shot imbalance forces goaltenders to be on their toes at all times, which takes a great deal of concentration for any college-level netminder.

“The type of game that Michigan plays is a mental challenge for any of the goalies that play here,” said Scarpace, who is now the team’s video coordinator. “It’s not like you’re getting a lot of shots every night. You’re getting underworked, so it’s a mental challenge to stay in games and make the saves you have to make. You have to be ready to make a difference. “

And after going with a two-goalie system for much of the first half of last season, Berenson decided to start the goaltender he felt would deal best with that mental challenge.

Blackburn says it was only so long before Berenson made it clear that the Wolverines would be a one-goalie team.

“It was two guys fighting for a No. 1 spot to play all the games,” Blackburn said. “Sooner or later, we were going to choose one guy ... Every time Hogie touched the ice, he won. And when Billy played, we didn’t win. Just wins made the decision for us.”

So Hogan took to the ice with the tentative No. 1 tag and Sauer still pushing the sophomore for playing time. With the slightest mistake and Hogan knew that his starting job between the pipes could be taken away.

“Every game, I was looking over my shoulder,” Hogan said. “There was even games when I didn’t let many goals in and we weren’t playing the best team, but I may not have played well. I’m always second guessing myself, but I think that’s good. It keeps me always on my toes.”

This year, with Sauer graduated, Hogan is the clear starter between the pipes for the Wolverines.

His teammates, as well as Berenson, contend that Hunwick continues to push Hogan on a daily basis. But with just six minutes in relief against Nebraska-Omaha in the 2007-08 season, Hunwick won't force Hogan to look over his shoulder after every mistake.

That kind of confidence, according to Blackburn, can make a noticeable difference in a goaltender’s performance, especially with Michigan's high-pressure style. It’s something Blackburn can relate to from his own experience in net for the Wolverines.

“The pressure is always there, but there’s less pressure,” he said. “You know you’re the guy, you know you’re going to play, and you know that if you have a bad game you can go in and make up for it the next night.”

Berenson and the rest of the Wolverines will tell you that Hogan’s biggest change this season is his confidence in the net, a direct byproduct of his battle with Sauer. But Berenson isn’t surprised by the netminder’s newfound poise.

Despite the loss in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the longtime coach affirms that Hogan has the ability to win in high-pressure situations and most importantly in the postseason. He saw it when Hogan played junior hockey, and he saw it when Hogan took the ice as a freshman against Notre Dame, despite the losing effort.

“He showed he could play in a game where he had to make the difference,” Berenson said. “He’s showed me that, and I just thought that he reminded me of Turco.”

Back door mentality

To Berenson, it’s clear that the two National Championships that Turco helped attain in his four years at Michigan mean more than any All-America distinction or school records.

Turco was immune to a postseason goalie collapse, taking the Wolverines to the Frozen Four every year he donned the maize and blue. And although Berenson is a bit hesitant to make the comparison, Turco and Hogan play a similar game, especially in their abilities to handle the puck and help the defense.

With the game on the line in the 1998 National Championship, Turco preserved his reputation as a clutch netminder once again. Hogan’s only true assessment of postseason valor, however, lay strictly between the pipes at the Bridgeport Arena last year, where he allowed the game’s only two goals.

The netminder’s early struggles are of little concern to the Wolverines’ coaches, however, who admit the transformation from last year to this year is staggering. And the fact that Hogan had to earn his spot as the starting goalie last year, and several times before, proves even further that he’s more than capable of shouldering the load of a postseason run. With no prior experience, Hogan came in against Notre Dame in 2007 and kept the Wolverines in it before their comeback bid ended in overtime.

“Bryan had to work and bide his time to be the man here,” Scarpace said. “The goalie I see out there now is a kid that is focused and ready just as Turco, Blackburn and (former Wolverine Steve)Shields were.”

And he'll have to be focused if Michigan is meant to overcome its perennial postseason goalie collapse.

Hogan says his father, Jim, used to always poke fun at him for “coming through the backdoor” everywhere he went.

With the Lincoln Stars, Hogan unseated entrenched starter Steve Jakiel, and again with the Wolverines last year, Hogan came through “the backdoor” to win the starting job.

“It’s been like that my whole life,” Hogan said. “And it’s going to be like that wherever you go.”

That underdog mindset and mental toughness distinguishes him from any of the goalies Michigan has had in the past 20 years, including Turco, all of whom were nearly undisputed starters.

Hogan may only have a few games of postseason experience, but a lifetime of being the underdog and an unrivaled intensity at the position could be enough to distinguish him with the likes of Turco.

“Here’s a player that hasn’t been drafted, and he doesn’t have the hoopla or the attention that drafted players get,” Berenson said. “He’s going to surprise a lot of people, and he probably already has.”