When the puck hasn’t bounced the way it should for the Michigan hockey team this year, fans looking for a scapegoat often fail to point to the defense, which has turned over the puck far too often, or to the forwards that have struggled to work the puck through the neutral zone.
Time and again, the blame seems to fall on sophomore goaltender Billy Sauer.
Sometimes Sauer has rightfully earned this criticism, like when he allowed six goals to Ohio State in the season finale and eight to Minnesota in November’s College Hockey Showcase.
But it’s time Michigan fans stop letting those outlying games jade their opinions of the fledgling goalkeeper, who has been one of the team’s most consistent players throughout the season’s second half.
It was easy to criticize Sauer a year ago, when his litany of errors made then-senior Noah Ruden an obvious choice to start many games later in the season. Sauer struggled with playing the correct angles on Olympic ice surfaces, which are 15-feet wider than the typical college-hockey rink. The Walworth, N.Y., native also found it difficult to bounce back from poor performances.
But this season has been a different story. Since Jan. 1, Sauer has allowed just 2.53 goals per game, and more important, he’s bounced back from bad games like a grizzled veteran.
So what’s the difference?
Sauer is a year older, 19 this January, after entering Michigan when he was just 17. This year has brought increased maturity, which has allowed him to critique his own performances.
When the Wolverines traveled to Fairbanks – which features the larger ice – in October 2005, Sauer allowed several bad goals en route to a 4-2 loss during the series opener. But this time, Sauer spent extra time before the games working on his positioning, and it paid off with a sweep.
Sauer has also worked closely with the Wolverines’ new goaltender coach Yona Fiorvanti, who was his personal coach in New York. Last year, Sauer struggled to learn from then-goalie coach Stan Matiwijiw, whose impatience didn’t always work well with Sauer.
But Fiorvanti, who also appears demanding but is more patient than Matwijiw, has clearly aided Sauer’s play, helping him eliminate many of the errors that plagued him last season.
With Sauer’s improvements, Michigan should be fine heading into the CCHA playoffs – and possibly the NCAA Tournament – with Sauer in net.
He’ll continue to make mistakes. And he may not be able to steal a game for the Maize and Blue like Marty Turco, Steve Shields or even Al Montoya were sometimes able. But the Wolverines can count on him to keep them in the game almost every night.
Michigan coach Red Berenson famously says he asks just one thing of his goaltender: that he gives the team a chance to win.
During almost every postgame press conference this season, Berenson has said Sauer has given the Wolverines that chance.
It might be nice to have an impenetrable wall like Turco in net, but Michigan doesn’t have that this season.
But what the Wolverines do have is a more mature goaltender than they did a year ago, which can only mean good things with the playoffs around the corner.