Hayden Lavigne crouched between the posts, knees bent, head up and readied himself for the oncoming shots.
Down the ice, 200 feet away, Strauss Mann mirrored a similar stance.
And somewhere in the middle, Jack Leavy, the third goaltender, stood, awaiting the signal to switch with Lavigne or Mann.
Then it happened.
Lavigne raised his hand, and Leavy headed towards him mid-drill. As he reached the left post, a puck was shot at Lavigne. With Lavigne guarding the right post and Leavy on the left, the two goalies came up with a save. Then Leavy took over for the remainder of the drill — a seamless transition.
It was an example of the type of synergy and ability they lacked all last year.
Looking at the goaltending stats from last season, the numbers don’t lie. There’s nowhere to hide. Mann and Lavigne struggled. Out of the 60 teams playing NCAA Division I hockey, Michigan finished 59th in goaltending. It finished the year with 13-16-7 record.
New goalie coach Kris Mayotte knows this season has to be different.
“I think they’d be the first ones to tell you that it has to improve,” Mayotte said. “But I think from what I’ve spoken with them about, and from what I’ve heard, they went into this last offseason with that mindset and that goal that they could come in this year and improve on that. I think their work ethic has been really good, their attention to detail has been good and their desire to improve.”
From the end of last season to now, the coaching staff has been watching, observing and taking notes all in an effort to answer the question that haunted Michigan last season — who will be the starting goaltender?
Despite the efforts, there are still kinks to be worked out. Mayotte spent the last month working to break any bad summer habits the three might have developed.
One of the biggest shifts between summer training and season training is the focus required. In the summer, goaltenders face multiple shots back-to-back, sometimes all from the same spot one player after another. But in the game, there’s only one puck to focus on.
Mayotte matches the enthusiasm of Mann and Lavigne. Prior to arriving in Ann Arbor, he reached out to introduce himself and begin forming the important bond between players and coaches. The day of his first practice as goalie coach, he wasted no time.
Two words broke apart the huddle signaling the end of practice: “Go Blue.”
Slapping their sticks against the ice, the players skated for the locker room. But the goalies, upon changing, headed straight for Mayotte’s office to review film.
“Having him not be shy at all and jump right in to giving us advice right away has been a good way to just start the season,” Lavigne said. “To make the most of these limited practice hours that we’ve had. He’s done a good job of just acclimating real quick and getting us adjusted to his new coaching style real fast.”
For Lavigne, the biggest obstacle between him and the starting spot, is his mental game.
A disappointing performance in net and a lack of consistency knocked his confidence last year. During the 2017-18 season, Lavigne was in net for the Wolverines throughout their Frozen Four run. But last year, the goaltending he displayed during that run was nowhere to be found. He ended the season with a losing record, going 7-8-3 with an .883 save percentage and a 3.16 goals averaged against.
Lavigne’s mental struggle was so taxing that he couldn’t work much on the technical side of his goaltending like he wanted.
“Last year obviously was a tough one for me,” Lavigne said. “But I think I learned a lot out of it from the mental side of things and how to handle certain situations. How to hold myself accountable and the things that I wanna do that I didn’t do very well last year. So it was a good learning stone from there.”
Statistically, Mann didn’t fare much better. He posted a 6-8-4 record, though slightly edged out Lavigne with a .895 save percentage and a 2.91 GAA.
Strauss’ obstacle is identical to Lavigne’s. Throughout the summer, he emphasized the importance of getting in the right headspace following a tough season.
Mentally, he emphasized just playing and staying relaxed rather than overthinking every save. Once things clicked, he focused on staying loose to allow for more explosiveness out of his set up and fundamentals.
Because being mentally strong is such a crucial part of being a goaltender — almost more important than the physical strength in the eyes of Michigan coach Mel Pearson.
Goaltenders have a variety of resources available to them. During talks between the netminders and coaching staff, coaches stress the importance of attitude, preparation and focus on things that can be controlled rather than what can’t.
A confidence boost came Lavigne’s way on Monday when the Big Ten Coaches Poll was released and his name was on the list of honorable mentions.
“That’s a huge honor,” Lavigne said. “After not coming off a great season last year, it still means that the coaches and the people that participate in that poll still see what I’m capable of.”
Even now with both goaltenders mentally strong, the question of who will be Michigan’s starting goaltender is no closer to being answered. The exhibition match Sunday offers a chance for some clarity. Pearson wants both players to have an opportunity to show what they’re capable of and how far they’ve come.
“They’re both going to get an opportunity in the first game,” Pearson said. “They’ll both play some minutes, and we’ll just go from there. A lot of it’s based even on just how they do there.
“You take it week by week right now especially early in the season because they both haven’t played for so long. You just hope one of them’s ready to go, if not both of them. I’d like to see both of them really have a great competition and make it hard on the coaches to decide who’s gonna play.”