Goaltender Erik Portillo has been impressive between the pipes thus far this season. Gabby Ceritano/Daily. Buy this photo.

As a pair of Western Michigan forwards conducted an odd-man rush Friday night, the crowd at Yost Ice Arena held its breath. The Broncos drove in on sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo and fired a shot, only to be answered with an emphatic pad save, shutting down any threat of a goal. In return, his teammates erupted for their netminder.

Portillo’s first season as the Michigan hockey team’s primary starter has included, for the most part, much of the same poise and clutch saves. Through the Wolverines’ first six games this season, the 6-foot-6 Swede has posted an impressive 2.60 goals against average (GAA) and has stopped 91.6% of his shots. Such play has aided Michigan’s hot start and ascent to the No. 2 ranking.

Portillo’s fast acclimation into the starting role has gone beyond solid stats. He is a vocal and calm presence in net, constantly shouting directions to his skaters and typically remaining steady in-between the pipes. 

“That’s always been my identity as a goalie, to really be a leader on the ice,” Portillo said. “I think it’s really important. The guys say they appreciate it.”

Portillo was drafted in the third round by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. If he is to succeed at the next level, merely stopping shots won’t be enough.

Before the season began, though, Portillo’s success and leadership was not a foregone conclusion — after all, he had big skates to fill in the crease. 

Former Wolverines’ goaltender Strauss Mann passed up on his senior year in favor of playing for Skellefteå AIK in the Swedish Hockey League. Mann was excellent for Michigan, appearing in 77 games over three seasons. He posted a sub 2.00 GAA and saved over 93% of his shots in his sophomore and junior seasons, the latter of which he served as team captain. 

With Mann gone, the Wolverines suddenly faced a gaping hole in their depth chart. Replacing a two-time All-Big Ten goaltender would be no easy feat. But after posting a stellar 1.67 GAA and a 93.5 save percentage in just seven games during his freshman year, Portillo has shown enough potential to rise to the occasion.

Portillo learned from his predecessor, Mann, and he hopes to emulate a similar relationship with the other goaltenders currently on the team.

“It’s a really tight group, we know each other in and out,” Portillo said. “I think we have a lot of fun, off and on the ice. Here is just the beginning and we have something great to build off. … I’m excited to see where this is going.”

While Portillo has delivered so far, Michigan coach Mel Pearson knows there is still room for growth. Portillo has a tendency to let up big rebounds, one of the only ways opposing teams can figure him out. He has also never faced an entire season’s workload, a test that will surely challenge him as the year progresses.

“Erik’s learning he’s got to play two games, he didn’t play any back-to-back games last year,” Pearson said. “I thought his first weekend he was just okay in the second game. We talked a lot… make sure you prepare, you do your rest and your recovery because you have to be able to go back and refocus and re-energize.”

Michigan’s forwards are abundantly talented and figure to continue carrying the load. But if the Wolverines want to cash in on their championship aspiration, Portillo will need to remain steady between the pipes.