Prior to last Friday’s game against Penn State, the Michigan hockey team’s junior goaltender Noah West hadn’t started an NCAA contest in over a year and a half.
In fact, West really hadn’t seen much ice time at all. Firmly entrenched as the backup behind junior goaltender Erik Portillo, West spent just a half-hour on the ice and saw just 11 shots as a Wolverine.
This past weekend, however, that shot total increased almost eightfold as No. 3 Michigan allowed the most shots on goal of any series it’s played this year. But despite his long hiatus, West stepped up to the challenge and was the Wolverines’ most consistent player. On Friday, he kept them alive for much longer than they should have been by turning away 46 of 48 shots, before helping carry them to victory and putting aside another 32 shots on Saturday.
With these performances, West demonstrated that Michigan has a major muscle that it rarely needs to flex — a more than capable backup goaltender.
“We’ve got a ton of confidence in West after what he proved,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said Tuesday. “I think it’s extremely difficult to not play for a whole year and eight games or whatever it was and then he goes in and does what he does. It’s great.”
But despite West’s recent play, there’s no debate as to who the Wolverines’ starting goalie is, or should be — the answer is Portillo. An early third round pick for the Buffalo Sabres, Portillo has been nothing short of stellar in tenure with Michigan.
Portillo is the starter, and that won’t change. But the knowledge of having someone on the bench who can also win games is something that gives the Wolverines comfort.
“Erik Portillo’s a stud,” Naurato said. “He’s the starting goalie. One weekend’s not gonna blow that up. But if (Portillo) isn’t going, we’re confident that we have someone who is.”
Hockey is unpredictable. Just this past weekend, an illness forced Michigan to go without its starter. West’s role is to be someone who it can trust when plan A isn’t working. If Portillo is sick, or injured, or if he’s just having an off night, West has proved that he can live up to the task.
That’s a big asset, and something he didn’t demonstrate last year. Of the 11 shots West faced as a sophomore, he let in three goals. Albeit over a small sample size, that didn’t necessarily inspire confidence. This past weekend has flipped that.
But while performing in the present, West’s play sets him up for the future too. Unless something major changes, Portillo is expected to turn professional this summer, opening a path for West to take the starting job. If Portillo is gone, the question becomes, who replaces him? It’s a question that even Naurato is thinking about.
“(Portillo) won’t be here next year, and West will be battling,” Naurato said. “He’s earned way more opportunity in the future for sure.”
Nothing is guaranteed. Michigan could bring in a transfer or a new recruit; third string freshman goaltender Tyler Shea could blossom and steal the job. Or, West could win it.
If that’s the case, this past weekend wasn’t just an anomaly, but a glimpse into the future. And if West’s play stays at this level, that future looks bright.