DETROIT — With 10 minutes left in Saturday’s game and Michigan clinging to a one-goal lead, I took a look around Joe Louis Arena at those fans wearing the Maize and Blue. Like you might expect after Friday’s collapse, the confidence level appeared pretty low.

Ice Hockey

Looking around the hallway known as the arena’s press box, the atmosphere buzzed with anticipation. The night before, most of the writers had put away their notebooks, started packing their computers and, in some cases, had their stories mostly written before the Spartans stole a point from Michigan in the last two minutes. On Saturday, every one was on the edge of their seats.

So why is everyone watching the CCHA’s first-place team assuming that they’re not going to hold the lead? Six times this season, the Wolverines have entered the third period with a shutout. Only twice have they kept it. A team with as many great players as Michigan shouldn’t have this problem.

Michigan State didn’t have as many great players as Michigan, but it didn’t need them. The Spartans’ goalie Dominic Vicari was more than just a great player this weekend — he was a superstar. With six seconds left in Saturday’s game, freshman Chad Kolarik shot a one-timer at the Spartans’ net that Vicari managed to get a blocker on. You could call it lucky. The night before, Montoya gave up the game-tying goal with 1.2 seconds left. On a centering pass from Jim Slater, the puck hit off a skate and fell on Drew Miller’s stick. Miller buried the shot before Montoya had a chance to move. You could call it unlucky. On Saturday, with 3:20 left, Montoya made two good saves in traffic but left the second rebound open for Jim McKenzie to backhand into the net. You could call it unlucky. Then, as time ran out in overtime, Tambellini fired a shot at Vicari in traffic. Vicari made the save, controlled the rebound and stifled Michigan’s offensive threat. You could call it lucky.

But I don’t buy all that. Superstars just get lucky more often than other players.

Including two overtimes, Al Montoya stood on his head for 125 minutes this weekend — and if the games had been 55 minutes each, this column would be about how Montoya was a superstar.

But a superstar has to step up at the end of the game — like Vicari did. My definition of a superstar is someone who steps it up to finish important games.

The perfect example of a superstar is Jean-Sebastian Giguere from two years ago. Giguere led the seventh-seeded Ducks through the playoffs behind his five shutouts, .945 save percentage and 1.62 goals against average. He single-handedly swept the Red Wings and pushed his team to the Stanley Cup finals.

Al Montoya has the potential to be that good. Talking to the pro scouts about Montoya at Yost a couple months ago, I felt like I was hearing about Giguere. The amount of praise that they — both Rangers and others — gave to Montoya shocked me. Obviously, I knew he was good. He helped the team to the Frozen Four in his freshman season, won a gold medal with the U.S. Junior team in last year’s World Junior Championships and was drafted sixth in the NHL draft by the Rangers this summer. But they spoke of him as if he was the next great NHL goalie — assuming there is an NHL to play in down the road.

Last year, in the game to go to the Frozen Four, Montoya faced 45 shots and stopped 42 of them. But even that game was the start of a disturbing trend. Michigan was leading 2-1 heading into the final frame before Boston College tied, and eventually won, the game.

Michigan has gone to the Frozen Four 22 times, more than any other team. A third-period goal kept the Wolverines from making their 23rd Frozen Four appearance last year. This weekend, three third-period goals allowed Ohio State to inch dangerously close to first in the CCHA — a position Michigan now holds by a mere point. I don’t want to point out the obvious, but someone needs to step up.

That person should be Montoya. He’s better now than he was at the beginning of the season, but he still needs to be better. It’s hard to call out Montoya — partly because you can’t ask for much better than three goals allowed in a series with Michigan State and partly because I’ve seen what Michigan defenders do to skaters who challenge their goalie. I can only imagine what they would do to a comparatively scrawny writer.

But one thing is clear. On any team, the goalie is always going to be the player that has the pressure on his shoulders to win the game. He is the only player that, alone, can change the outcome of the game. Montoya can be Michigan’s superstar.

He’s just a few minutes away.

 

Ian Herbert can be reached at iherbert@umich.edu.

 

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