For about a season and a half now, junior goaltender Strauss Mann has been the unquestioned starter for the Michigan hockey team. Last season, he was a finalist for the Mike Richter award — given to the best goalie in college hockey — and he’s put up a respectable 0.914 save percentage for the Wolverines this year.
Still, when the backup is a 6-foot-6, third-round NHL Draft pick, it probably wouldn’t hurt to give him a shot every once in a while.
Enter Erik Portillo. In his first career start — a 4-2 Michigan victory over Ohio State — the freshman goaltender filled Mann’s likely smaller shoes with ease, allowing just two goals on 21 shots (one of which would have been waived off if not for an obscure rule regarding offsides reviews).
“(Mann) was really good to me,” Portillo said. “He helped me out and was just positive around me, and I’m really thankful for that.”
In key moments where the Wolverines’ defense faltered and the Buckeyes threatened, Portillo managed to step up and make the necessary saves. One such moment came midway through the first period, while the game remained scoreless. A defensive lapse from Michigan allowed Ohio State defenseman C.J. Regula to find forward Matt Cassidy on a breakaway entering the offensive zone. Cassidy went glove side, and Portillo calmly sent it into the corner.
Especially when goals are difficult to come by — as they were early in Friday’s tilt — games can hinge on just one or two key saves.
Luckily for Michigan, Portillo was there to make them. Early in the second period, with the Wolverines in the midst of a rough defensive shift, the Buckeyes planted players in front of the net and let it rip. Three different times, they managed to set up clean, unimpeded deflections right in front of the net.
For all three, Portillo made the stop. Moments later, Michigan scored.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “He hasn’t (started) a game in ten months, which is really difficult, but for him to come in and play the game he did tonight was very encouraging.”
Still, if Portillo was close to invulnerable in net, there were a few moments where he maybe should have stayed there. On more than one occasion, Portillo made decisions to play pucks that were questionable at best — at one point nullifying an icing call. On several of those instances, too, he hesitated in getting rid of the puck and nearly turned it over.
Though these situations didn’t cost Michigan on Friday, they’ll definitely be something to watch if Portillo gets more time moving forward.
“He likes to get out of the net and handle the puck,” Pearson said. “I think I’ve aged a couple more years tonight because of that, but he can take some pressure off the defense when he does that.”
At the end of the day, Mann is still the Wolverines’ top goalie. There won’t be a competition in the coming weeks to determine who should start in goal, but that doesn’t make Portillo’s strong start any less important moving forward. Friday night, he showed that if Mann has a rough night or needs a game off somewhere down the road, the backup is an almost equally viable option.
That will relieve a lot of stress moving forward — unless, of course, he keeps trying to be the team’s best puck handler.