For the first 12 games of the Michigan hockey team’s season, Strauss Mann led the Wolverines out of the locker room. The junior goaltender and team captain was the first to set foot on the ice, knocking warm-up pucks off the boards. And when the puck dropped, he was between the pipes.
But on Jan. 15 — Michigan’s 13th game — Mann didn’t partake in any of these rituals. Instead, it was freshman goaltender Erik Portillo, who made his first start of the season. Mann, on the other hand, looked on from the bench, a seat that has become foreign to him over the past two seasons.
It wasn’t that Mann’s play was lacking. He had gotten pulled in two of the Wolverines prior five games, but that was more due to poor defensive play in front of him rather than any fault of his own. In eight of his 12 starts, he had limited opposing teams to two goals or less. But following a devastating 3-2 loss on Jan. 9 to Michigan State, it was time for a change.
“(Mann) has been, the last few games, 1-4, and not that he played poorly … but more importantly was we needed to get (Portillo) in,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said after the Jan. 15 game. “We needed to get (Portillo) in at some point and see what he could do and get him comfortable.”
Pearson’s decision paid off, as Portillo saved 19 of 21 shots in a 4-2 win over Ohio State. The next night, Mann returned to the net and posted a shutout.
The rotation worked out so well that the Wolverines returned to it the next weekend against Notre Dame. Once again, both goaltenders impressed, each giving up only one goal in a sweep.
“Obviously (Mann would) probably like to play every game, and I’m sure (Portillo) would too, but we’ve got some competition,” Pearson said. “They’ve both played well, so it’s a nice decision to have. It’s a tough decision, but it’s a nice decision when you got two guys playing like they are.”
While Mann is facing competition for starts for the first time since his freshman year, Pearson emphasized that there is no goaltending controversy, nor should there be. The formula of starting Portillo in the first game of the series and Mann in the second has led Michigan to its best stretch of the season. Portillo has held down the fort behind fresh legs, while Mann has played two of his best games of the season behind a more fatigued squad.
“I think it’s always tougher the second game for a lot of reasons,” Pearson said. “To play back to back in a physical sport you’re more tired, you don’t have as much energy. If you’re winning that first game the other team’s gonna come after you pretty hard the second night, and I thought it was a good plan to have the reigning Big Ten goalie of the year coming at you the next night.”
Besides having extra rest, what makes Mann and Portillo so successful in tandem is how different they are. Mann is a relatively small goaltender who makes up for his lack of size with his quickness. At 6-foot-6, Portillo is nearly the opposite, relying more on his length.
Teams can scout the duo all they want, but anything they learn from how Portillo plays in the first game of a series goes out the door when facing Mann.
“What (Portillo’s) required to do to get to the right spots and to be in position to make saves, in theory, is less than what (Mann) would have to do,” assistant coach Kris Mayotte said. “He can play a little deeper. He can move less, which, you open up less holes.”
Following the series against the Fighting Irish, it seemed as though Pearson would stick with the same rotation, but the two-week shutdown threw a wrench in those plans. So much of playing the position comes down to staying fresh and keeping the same routines, neither of which Mann or Portillo could do.
While both played well prior to the shutdown, there was no guarantee they would return to the ice in the same form. Even though Pearson liked the split, he wasn’t positive it would be the right strategy when the Wolverines returned to play. But when they got back on the ice this week, any concerns Pearson had were quelled.
“They’re pretty mentally sharp,” Pearson said on Monday. “(Mann) I wasn’t worried about because he’s sort of, he’s always that way. He’s into it. And (Portillo) I was a little more concerned about, but I know he has some confidence now … yesterday he looked really good. So he’s in a good spot.”
Pearson implied that both would start this weekend against Wisconsin, but he didn’t fully commit, still needing to see more in practice.
Regardless of what he decides, Portillo’s emergence could pay dividends for Michigan down the stretch. It was never going to be sustainable to start Mann every game in a condensed season, and he may even be more effective when splitting starts.
Mann is in no danger of losing the starting job. Even though he no longer starts every game, he’s still the Wolverines’ top goaltender. But every now and then, Portillo will be the one to lead them onto the ice.
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