Strauss Mann was blunt with his response.
The sophomore goaltender rolled into the postgame interview session still wearing half of his pads after posting a shutout to help the Michigan hockey team topple Michigan State, 3-0, on Friday night.
The game featured two of the nation’s top goaltenders in Mann and John Lethemon, resulting in the following question: did he view the game as a competition between goaltenders?
“No,” Mann jumped in. “It’s just team versus team. Just trying to focus on my game.”
His answer was a typical one, the mindset a coach would want one of his top players to take on. Still, it’s intriguing to analyze Mann vs. Lethemon.
“Both goalies made some good saves,” Michigan State coach Danton Cole said. “Those are two good goalies and they’re going to do that.”
Friday was the fifth meeting between the two this season. Lethemon certainly had the upper hand in the opening series in mid November, while his team walked away with the sweep. He tallied a 95.9 percent save rate that weekend while Mann blocked just 83.3 percent of his shots. Mann even got pulled for senior goaltender Hayden Lavigne in the latter game, after giving up three goals on 12 shots in the first two periods.
But since then, Mann has found his footing. When the Wolverines swept Michigan State in mid-February, Mann tallied a 96.5 percent save rate compared to Lethomon’s 82 percent clip. In a sense, that series leveled the matchup.
And on Friday, Mann established the edge in the head-to-head battle — whether he saw it that way or not. Lethemon and Mann entered the game with the nation’s fourth- and sixth-best save rates, respectively. But Lethemon gave up three goals on 20 shots while Mann stayed calm, stopping all 25 chances he faced. Now, Mann is tied for fourth while Lethemon slid down to sixth.
“It’s getting like a broken record with him, he’s just outstanding,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said of Mann. “So I thought he was our best player again tonight.”
Mann’s game was especially pivotal on the penalty kill. The Wolverines committed five penalties, but successfully killed all of them with Mann as the backbone.
“We took too many penalties tonight,” Pearson said. “But from the net out, your best penalty killer has to be your goaltender, and Strauss is really good.”
Mann’s skill was on full display early in the final frame. The Spartans won a faceoff in Michigan’s defensive zone. Soon after, forward Mitchell Lewandowski sent a pass from the right side of the slot over to forward Patrick Khodorenko near the left circle. It looked like Khodorenko would get a solid opportunity, but Mann quickly hovered to the left post and then extended his glove to catch a far-side shot.
The performance marked Mann’s fifth shutout of the season — which is tied for the second-most in the country. Unsurprisingly, Mann wasn’t interested.
“Nothing,” Mann said when asked what the clean sheet meant to him. “It’s a playoff win. That’s what it’s all about.”
Khodorenko mentioned that moving forward against Mann, Michigan State just needs to put more pucks at his pads and look for ensuing second chances especially given Mann’s smaller frame for a goaltender.
“He’s good with his glove, he’s square,” Khodorenko said. “We just gotta move the puck around and get a guy in front of him, cause like I said, he’s not the biggest guy.”
Saturday — and potentially Sunday — will show whether that strategy pans out. And by then, it will be clear who has the final say between Mann and Lethemon.