A l Montoya has had quite an interesting season. At times, the freshman netminder has appeared brilliant. And at others, he’s looked human – like an 18-year old kid in one of the most pressure-packed positions in collegiate sports.
He’s been a victim of cheap shots by opposing teams – both physically and verbally. He’s been slashed. He’s been pummeled. He’s been ripped by opposing players and called out by some of the CCHA’s elite.
Montoya “let his team down,” CCHA Player of the Year Chris Kunitz said after his Bulldogs beat the Wolverines on Feb. 1.
And now, Montoya will be called upon to be the Wolverines’ rock in their NCAA Tournament run. It’s a time when a hot goalie can make all the difference for a Cinderella team, or a struggling one can make the nation’s elite look vulnerable. So it’s all the more crucial now that Montoya fills the shoes of former Michigan goaltending greats Steve Shields (Boston Bruins), Marty Turco (Dallas Stars) and Josh Blackburn.
And they are big shoes to fill. They were all “money” goaltenders when the season was on the line, and Turco won two national titles. Montoya, the fifth straight – and youngest – goalie to start as a freshman at Michigan, will be defined by how he performs in situations like this weekend.
And Michigan coach Red Berenson feels he’s ready.
“He has fit right into the mold that was there for him,” Berenson said. “I think he’ll be comfortable in this situation.”
Montoya craves that pressure. He lives for it.
That’s why, at age 15, he moved across the country – and away from his family – to play hockey in Texas against guys five years older. That’s why he took mail correspondence courses in addition to a normal academic load in high school in order to arrive at Michigan a year early. That’s why he didn’t make any other college visits, even when plenty of schools were interested – so he could be the next great Michigan goaltender.
Montoya wanted to have the eyes of the 7,000-plus rabid Yost fans burning a hole in his back. They expect national championships – anything else is not enough.
It’s a little different than when Shields was between the pipes for a rebuilding Michigan program.
“When I broke in as a freshman, there was probably a little less pressure because the team wasn’t as well known as it is now and wasn’t as consistently good as it is now,” said Shields. “There wasn’t that pressure like there has been on the guys after me (Turco and Blackburn) that have had to step in and perform right off the bat.”
Montoya has heard the comparisons before. They’re inevitable. Michigan volunteer goalie coach Stan Matwijiw said the freshman presents himself on the ice like Shields, and battles like Blackburn.
And assistant coach Billy Powers said that Montoya’s sparkling shutout performance against Ohio State in the CCHA Tournament semifinals last week had him reminiscing of Turco’s glory days.
“Al was phenomenal,” Powers said. “It got to the point where we had a feeling on the bench that they just weren’t going to score – similar to how we felt when Turco was here.”
Turco won’t be there to bail out the Wolverines this weekend. Neither will Shields nor Blackburn.
So when a sniper like the nation’s leading scorer, Colorado College junior forward Peter Sejna, is streaking into the Wolverines zone, ready to fire, it will have to be Montoya who makes the season-altering save. It may be a save that will help determine whether the Wolverines raise their third national title banner in seven years, or end another season prematurely.
“He’ll be one of the most important players throughout these playoffs,” said junior defenseman Andy Burnes.
He’ll also be the most scrutinized.
And he doesn’t mind a bit.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.