Some athletes have more of a margin for error than others. A baseball player who gets a hit just three times out of 10, for example, is considered proficient at the plate.
Hockey goaltenders don’t have that same luxury.
“When you’re a goalie, you’re judged on your mistakes,” says Michigan goaltending coach Steve Shields. “That’s it. Nobody cares if you’ve made 10 great saves if you’ve allowed the goal that cost the game.”
This fine line makes confidence all the more important for having success at the position. In fact, Shields, a former Wolverine netminder who played 10 years in the NHL, believes goaltending is “all confidence.”
“In today’s game, you could take all 60 college (starting) goalies and they would be very similar with regards to their skill level,” Shields said. “Some of them have more confidence and therefore that could lead to better focus, it could lead to feeling like they’re going to make more saves, and ultimately it leads to better performance.”
Over his last four games, sophomore Hayden Lavigne has proven Shields correct with his recent solid play, leading to him effectively being named Michigan’s starter in the process.
Like sophomore Jack LaFontaine, his main competition for the No. 1 role, Lavigne has displayed flashes of brilliance all season. In October, Lavigne made 42 saves against Penn State — the nation’s highest-scoring offense — in the hostile road environment of Pegula Ice Arena as the Wolverines came away with a 5-2 win, a night after LaFontaine stopped 49 Penn State attempts. Six weeks later, Lavigne denied a slew of dangerous Michigan State shots, going a perfect 21-for-21 to earn the Wolverines’ first shutout of the season.
Despite these positives, neither LaFontaine nor Lavigne had been able to pull away with the starting job until recently, even though Michigan coach Mel Pearson originally wanted to settle on a primary goaltender within the season’s first two months. Neither goalie made more than three consecutive starts during the season’s first half, while their play began to suffer behind a struggling defense — the Wolverines gave up an average of 4.4 goals per game from Nov. 11 to Jan. 2.
But dating back to a Jan. 5 showdown against then-No. 2 Notre Dame, Lavigne has allowed just two goals per game with an elite .926 save percentage, taking firm control between the pipes.
“At the beginning of the season we saw a good game here and a good game there, which obviously isn’t enough at this level,” Lavigne said. “Recently, I’ve been able to string together four pretty solid games back-to-back, and that in itself leads to a little more confidence where I’ve found myself playing a little bit farther out, little bit more sure of the plays I’m making in net, which just kind has led to an overall stronger game.”
Much of Shields’ work with the Wolverines’ netminders concerns the mental aspects of goaltending, and thus, their training is more individualized than any of Michigan’s other position groups. For Lavigne, Shields has stressed getting back to basics.
“Lately, what we’ve done is we just simplified things and gotten back to going out early,” Shields said. “Making sure that he’s warmed up, in the right frame of mind and he’s felt some of the repetitive shots that goalies build confidence from.”
According to Shields, Lavigne possesses a natural, ingrained self-confidence that some goaltenders lack. The two have worked together to maintain this level of self-assurance, allowing Lavigne to remain in rhythm even when “puck luck” hasn’t gone his way.
“He knows that he’s a good athlete, he knows that he can play the position,” Shields said. “So it’s my responsibility to just to keep him in that frame of mind. (It) can go the other way when you don’t have success, and then you get away from what naturally is your level of confidence or what you feel you can do.
“He’s been really good at sticking with it, especially at times where he wasn’t getting the bounces and not a ton of easy shots to help your save percentage and goals-against, which are confidence builders. So he’s had to do it just gutting it out.”
Lavigne hasn’t necessarily faced a barrage of shots during his recent hot streak — Minnesota fired just two shots at him in the third period last Saturday. He’s made 25 saves per contest over the last four games, slightly below the team average of 26.4.
So while it may sound counterintuitive, the high-volume offense of Penn State — which leads the nation with 40.1 shots per game — may prove to be a perfect setup for an assertive Lavigne this weekend. The Nittany Lions have built a reputation based on launching pucks from all over the offensive zone, rather than incisively hunting for grade-A chances near the crease.
Against Penn State, Lavigne won’t have to constantly “gut it out” as he has needed to do recently. He’ll be on his toes from the opening puck drop until the final horn. Many of the attempts the Nittany Lions will take this weekend are likely to emulate the “repetitive,” less dangerous shots Lavigne faces during his preparation.
“That kind of gives you a little bit more confidence when you get shots early and a lot of times they’re taking shots that aren’t always high-quality scoring chances,” Lavigne said. “So you’re getting shots that are from far out and are from bad angles, or they’re in situations where you can just kind of go down and let it hit you and (you) don’t really have to make the save, which just kind of gives you a lot more confidence.
“You start to feel the puck a little bit better, which leads to better rebound control, and in turn the flow of the game starts to feel a little bit more calm.”
“Calm” normally isn’t the first word you’d use to describe a hockey game between Michigan and Penn State. In their last meeting, the two teams combined to score 16 goals and take 173 shots on goal over two games. That’s not exactly the happiest environment for a goaltender.
Unless, however, you’re self-assured, playing your best hockey as of late and thrive on high-pressure situations like this one.
Unless you’re Hayden Lavigne.