It’s difficult to feel lonely among more than 6,200 people.
Unless you’re the one who allowed five goals in back-to-back home starts.
The one pulled from the game after two periods.
The one still wearing a goalie mask on the bench.
Unless you’re Billy Sauer.
Then, I guess, loneliness doesn’t seem like such a fanciful concept for someone at Yost Ice Arena on Friday night.
With each Fighting Irish goal, Sauer looked a little smaller, a little younger and a little more helpless. By the time the horn sounded to conclude the second period, Sauer looked like a defeated man – scratch that – a defeated child as he somberly skated back toward his locker room.
During the third period, Sauer sat on the bench, tucked into the corner, and kept his goalie mask on. It could’ve been a sign of weakness, a way for Sauer to hide from the embarrassment of giving up 18 goals over his previous three starts; a way for him to avoid seeing the hundreds of pairs, of eyes glued to him as he sat and watched like everyone else.
Or it could’ve been a sign of what he was thinking, a symbol he’s ready for his next game and he won’t allow this last slip-up to affect him.
The only way to know is to ask him.
After Friday’s game, Sauer opened the door to leave the locker room. He appeared to walk just a little bit faster than usual, maybe trying to avoid a post-game discussion.
Not so fast, Billy.
But while I talked to him, there was no sense that the past three weeks have been, statistically at least, the worst of his career. Judging by his body language and the way he talked, Sauer was treating this like just another rough day at the office.
Unfortunately, another rough day doesn’t just affect him – it affects his team. And as positive as he sounds after rough games (this isn’t the first time he’s seemed upbeat after a tough loss), he still appears rattled on the ice after allowing a goal.
It’s easy to tell people you have to forget about the last goal, but actually doing it isn’t so easy for Sauer.
“It was a tough game for him,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said on Friday. “He only had four shots in the first period and two were goals. That is frustrating for a goalie. Then in the second period, it got worse. I cannot tell you what his psyche is, but obviously the puck is going in too easily.”
Yet despite his concerns, Berenson stuck with Sauer yesterday. The goaltender he dubbed the starter at the beginning of the season.
Sauer started between the pipes for yesterday’s game, the bookend of a home-and-home series with Notre Dame. He had a chance to redeem himself with a win on the road. Instead, Sauer gave up two third-period goals within 30 seconds of each other, and the Fighting Irish finished their sweep of the Wolverines with a 4-3 win.
That’s nine goals against one goalie in one series.
In the world of theater, Sauer’s rise and fall is a quintessential tragedy. At the tender age of 17, he was hailed as the next one in a line of great goaltenders. His 8-3-1 record after the first half of last season was just a glimpse at his talent.
But since then, his inability to rebound after tough goals and tough contests has led to many disappointing games.
Sauer should know that to succeed as a goaltender his mettle must be harder than the pucks he’s supposed to stop. And to come to that conclusion, he may need to spend some extended time on the bench.
Last year was the first time in 10 years Berenson had to pause before penciling in his starting goalie. It seemed like Sauer had done enough to eliminate that problem before this season. But the last three weeks have proven he’s done anything but that.
“There’s nothing you can do about anything in the past,” Sauer said on Friday. “You might as well just keep on going.”
For the Michigan hockey team, forgetting about the past may require going on without Sauer in net for the short term.
It seems counterintuitive to bench a player whose mental game is shaky. But it’s the only option Berenson hasn’t tried with his young – he’s still just 18 – goalie. Last season’s goalie carousel did a lot to harm Sauer’s confidence. And Berenson’s undying support (with the exception of last weekend’s benching) has also failed to spark anything in the sophomore.
An extended stint on the pine may be just what Sauer needs to kick-start his mental game to the next level. He already knows how to talk the talk while dressed in a finely pressed suit, the stink of a bad game washed away.
But walking the walk while wearing the damp and bulky goalie’s equipment during the game is still out of his reach.
Back on Friday, Sauer spent most of the third period with his hockey helmet on. He looked like he was desperate to get back out on the ice and atone for his mistakes.
And maybe that’s the problem.
Maybe he’s pushing too hard.
Maybe spending some time on the bench without his helmet on will clear his mind.
Maybe, just maybe, Michigan hockey fans will finally get the consistent goalie they’ve been praying for the last two years.
– Bosch can be reached at email@example.com.