Every hockey team loves to thank its goalie. As the last line of defense, junior goaltender Erik Portillo’s job is a vital one for the Michigan hockey team. Because behind the forwards is the defense, behind the defense is the goaltender, but behind the goaltender?
Thus, it’s understandable that most teams praise their goalie. Yet, in the Wolverines’ eyes, Portillo’s patented playstyle takes on an outsized role in how they function on the ice. Portillo acts as both a goaltender and a unifier.
From his vocal leadership to his aggressive puck-moving intuition, Portillo occupies a role larger than just a puck stopper. A role that garners immense appreciation from those around him.
“He’s the backbone of this team,” graduate forward Nolan Moyle said. “He gives us a chance to win every night. … He’s been our best player all year.”
Moyle’s anointment of Portillo as the team’s best player goes beyond playerspeak. Portillo often operates outside of the expected spectrum for a goalie, playing as large of a part on offense as defense. At times, his play is one of a puck mover, not a stopper.
An integral portion of his game comes away from the net-front crease. Portillo often exits the cradle of his crease, instead playing pucks at his own discretion. In the process, he generates offense that sparks the team from the back end.
By igniting transition breakouts through his up-ice passing, Portillo’s status elevates to a sixth skater on the ice. Though the decision has evident risks as he abandons the net, his actions speak not only to his unique playstyle, but the trust his team has in him. A trust that Portillo has in himself too.
“It’s all about reading the situation,” Portillo said. “Where (the other team is) and then just trying to get your feet up ice, see the ice and then it’s about hockey IQ.”
Portillo’s choices generate more than just chances. By being an active participant, his stickhandling and decision making takes pressure off of his teammates, instead putting it on opposing defenses.
That’s not to say that Portillo hasn’t had his fair share of headaches from coming out of the net. Still, it’s a decision the team coalesces around him to make.
“I’ve always wanted to be an active goalie,” Portillo said. “And I know with all the (defensemen) I’ve played with they really like that as well. It’s something I’m constantly working on to make smarter and better decisions. It’s not always perfect, but I think, in the end, I have more positive effects than negative effects.”
Especially noticeable on special-teams play, Portillo’s freedom of movement defines his style of play. Unlike his teammates, Portillo may never see the goals and assists line up in the stat sheet, but that doesn’t diminish his presence.
Despite his active participation, Portillo’s play is still that of a goalie. A majority of the time, he cannot leave the net and is confined to skating back and forth between the pipes. But even when he can’t leave the net, his leadership doesn’t simply evaporate. It evolves.
Throughout contests, Portillo’s vocality is evident. His shouts arc across Yost, especially during defensive faceoffs. His voice often makes just as much noise as his play. Always talking, Portillo wants to make sure his teammates hear what he has to say. He sits in a privileged position with all 11 other players in front of him, so he sees what others often can’t.
“I can see the whole thing developing from a completely different angle to them,” Portillo said. “So I think I’m just trying to help them be smarter and get a better understanding of what’s going on.”
Though Portillo’s outsized presence may be unconventional, it’s all for the betterment of his teammates. A unifier, his status as a goalie puts him in a precarious position. The last line of defense, he can be hero or harrowing. A risk taker, or a raging headache.
Yet Portillo and his teammates know the risks — risks they’re willing to take. And as long as Portillo chooses to play his style, his teammates will follow.