As the Michigan hockey team began its shootout against Wisconsin on Saturday, all eyes were on junior forward Tyler Motte as he took the puck from center ice and went in on goal to try to give the Wolverines an early advantage.
That is, all eyes except for freshman goaltender Chad Catt’s.
While all of the 5,466 fans in attendance held their breath in anticipation of Motte’s opportunity, Catt was bent over on his own end, staring at the ice and waiting for the crowd to tell the tale of his teammate’s effort.
When a groan resonated throughout the crowd, Catt turned around, ready to face Badger forward Cameron Hughes.
Hughes carried the puck down the ice and fired, but the freshman netminder made the save. Next came Michigan junior center JT Compher’s goal. Once again, Catt refused to watch but listened as the crowd erupted.
Now it was Wisconsin forward Luke Kunin’s turn to beat Catt, but he shut the door on that effort, too.
Catt turned around once more, as Alex Kile skated toward net with a chance to clinch victory. The junior forward lit the lamp on the opposite end for the Wolverines.
Game over — Catt had completed his first career Big Ten appearance in dramatic fashion.
As for Catt’s refusal to watch his team shoot, every goalie has a quirk, and this was his.
“In my first year in Aberdeen (in the North American Hockey League), we went into a lot of shootouts,” Catt said. “I just was in practice, not worrying about what was going on outside of my end. So I kind of brought that into our shootouts, where I don’t need to worry about what the goalie is doing down there. I just need to take care of my end and make saves, and hopefully our guys put one or two in.”
Added goaltending coach Steve Shields: “It’s what the guy does to be ready. I did idiotic stuff that people would think is stupid. Whatever he needs to do to stop the puck, I think at this point, the coaches are like, ‘Do whatever you have to do.’ … If you can stop the puck, you’ll have your way around here.”
Prior to Saturday, Catt had played only one period in an exhibition against Toronto and 10 minutes in the Wolverines’ 7-3 blowout of Niagara.
But when he replaced junior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort after the starter conceded four goals 30 minutes into the matchup with the Badgers, Catt was thrown into hot water.
It was the second game of the Big Ten season, Michigan trailed Wisconsin 4-3, and Michigan coach Red Berenson sent the freshman in to stop the bleeding.
Despite the pressure, Catt delivered.
The Badgers found twine twice with Catt in goal, but both goals were far from the goaltender’s fault. He saved 12 of the 14 shots sent his way, giving the Wolverines enough to complete the comeback, and his performance in the shootout speaks for itself.
“It’s difficult in the respect that the expectations of you from the outside world are very limited any other day of the week,” Shields said. “But in a tie game or a game where it’s close and you’re down behind at home in the Big Ten regular season — all of a sudden, you’re the last line of defense. It would be considered tough. … For me, I know what it felt like to be in that situation.
“It’s an opportunity. Players always talk about the opportunity that they want. He was given an opportunity, and that day he ran with it.”
Before the season started, Catt was an afterthought as a candidate to anchor Michigan’s defense. He was buried behind Nagelvoort and senior Steve Racine in the depth chart and expected to strictly serve in a backup role.
Now Racine is week-to-week with a lower-body injury, and Nagelvoort has struggled after some impressive outings to start the season.
By no means is Catt a lock to start in net, but that may enter into the realm of possibility — especially as the coaching staff takes notice of the progress he has made since October.
Berenson said Catt looks much more acclimated to the speed of college hockey — something that was impossible for the now-21-year-old freshman to prepare for with the Aberdeen Wings. He also emphasized that far fewer pucks are getting past Catt in practice, leaving the coaches with the feeling that their freshman netminder is in a good place at the moment.
And Shields explained that Catt has had great days in practice, but also days when he thinks the freshman would like a “do-over.”
Those “do-overs” are a sign that Catt still has a lot of room for improvement, but that is something he willingly acknowledges.
At the beginning of the season, Catt and Shields reached an agreement on a unique program for improvement the pair could work on. There are two things stressed in that program: posture and explosiveness.
Catt is just 5-foot-10 — short compared to Nagelvoort and Racine, who stand 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-3, respectively — so he is working to get in the habit of standing upright as much as possible to prevent the opposition from shooting high on him.
As for explosiveness, Catt explained that he previously made calm pushes from post to post and would have to keep sliding over to get in position. But at this level, that’s not an option. Catt quickly recognized that if he stuck to his old habits, forwards would be shooting while he was still adjusting.
But on Saturday, there were still plenty of positive signs from the freshman — enough that someone on Twitter compared him to goaltender Julie “The Cat” Gaffney from “D2: The Mighty Ducks.”
“I get that a lot,” Catt said. “Every team I’ve played on, it has come up at least once or twice. I mean, it’s a movie, it’s funny. No, (I don’t prefer Goldberg), I don’t at all. I prefer her style compared to his.”