Before the season began, one of the biggest questions facing Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson was how to replace goaltender Strauss Mann.
Mann opted out of his senior year, leaving a legacy of two Mike Richter finalist nominations — the award given to the best college hockey goaltender — and nearly 80 games worth of experience in his wake.
In Erik Portillo’s first season starting, the sophomore goaltender has not only eased the loss of Mann, but has quickly established himself as one of the best goaltenders in the nation.
“Last year we had two great goalies,” sophomore forward Matty Beniers said. “This year he’s kinda taken over the spotlight being the one goalie and just how hard he works in practice. I think that’s been awesome. Obviously he’s huge, it’s really tough to score on him.”
Portillo only saw action in seven games last year, but to this point in the year, it’s easy to see why the Buffalo Sabres drafted him in the third round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. He has started all 25 games for the Wolverines while recording a stellar 2.31 goals against average and 92.1 save percentage. Portillo’s 6-foot-6 frame eats up a lot of net space, making it difficult for opposing forwards to put pucks past him.
In Michigan’s second road game against Ohio State, Portillo had one of his worst outings of the year. He allowed five goals on 33 shots, forcing Pearson to finish the last 10 minutes of the game with his backup goaltender, sophomore Noah West.
West — a transfer from Robert Morris — figured to see time behind Portillo and relieve him when facing a tough workload. Portillo had never gone through an entire season as the primary starter, and the position can take its toll. But West hasn’t seen time since the trip to Columbus — which was one of only two appearances on the year.
The fact that West plays only sparingly is more so a reflection of Portillo’s success than his own abilities.
“His rebound control has been better,” Pearson said. “He had to learn how to play back to back first couple of weekends. One of the things is just his focus, getting ready to play and what he needs to do to prepare for games. He’s been pretty solid from day one. He didn’t have to make a lot of great changes to get better.”
In the last few weeks, Portillo has elevated his game. His recent outings include a shutout versus Michigan Tech and a brilliant 44-save performance against Penn State. Trailing the Nittany Lions 3-1, forward Tyler Paquette drove in on Portillo, seeking to extend the lead to three. Portillo held strong, though, stuffing Paquette.
It was one of many on the night for Portillo and it kept the Wolverines afloat for their comeback effort.
“He’s just kinda a rock back there,” Beniers said. “He makes really big saves when we need them. He’s been like that all year. He’s worked really hard to get to where he is.”
It’s hard to imagine Portillo starting every game this season, due to the physical demands of the position. This team has a national championship on its mind and overworking its goaltender could be detrimental. Beyond West, Pearson also has graduate goaltender Jack Leavy on the roster, further bolstering the position’s depth.
Even still, Pearson relies heavily on Portillo.
“We’d like to get them in,” Pearson added. “But obviously the last four games, five games since coming back have been so tight, not much wiggle room. At this point, we project to start him every game. There might be some times guys get to come in and play some minutes here and there. But, at this point, he’s the clear-cut starter and he’ll start every game.”
If Portillo does end up starting every game, his numbers should remain strong and the Wolverines should win a lot of hockey games. It isn’t a risk-free plan, but it’s a risk Michigan’s willing to take.
And so far, Portillo has proven more than capable of shouldering the workload.