The World Junior Championships weren’t supposed to go this
way for Al Montoya. Michigan’s sophomore goaltender was
supposed to back up Maine’s Jimmy Howard, get some exposure
to international competition and be ready when the United States
hosts next year’s tournament.

Mira Levitan
Goalie Al Montoya, sporting his Michigan helmet, helped Team USA to the Gold at the World Junior Championships. (AP PHOTO)

But a left knee sprain just before the team was set to fly to
Finland knocked Howard out, and Montoya suddenly became the
starter.

Though the United States was favored to win the tournament, some
previews said the Americans’ only weakness might be Montoya
in goal due to his lack of international experience.

But this week, recaps of the World Juniors are singing a far
different tune. On the big stage, Montoya turned out to be an asset
and not a liability for the gold medal-winning Americans. He earned
the Directorate Award as the tournament’s top goaltender,
allowing just eight goals in six wins and notching a .944 save
percentage.

In the Americans’ 4-3 win over Canada, Montoya topped
Marc-Andre Fleury — the No. 1 overall pick of the Pittsburgh
Penguins last year. Fleury’s strong showing in last
year’s World Juniors catapulted him to the top of the draft,
and Montoya’s draft prospects shot up with his great
showing.

“He played unbelievable,” U.S teammate Matt Hunwick
said. “He made big saves at big times. He gave us a chance to
come back against Canada.”

Jeff Tambellini, who played for the Canadian team, agreed that
Montoya played at the top of his game. But the loss has been tough
for him and many others in Canada, where hockey is followed
extremely closely.

“I just congratulated him,” the sophomore forward
said of the few minutes they’ve spent together since the
game. “He’s been playing the national anthem in (the
lockerroom), so me and (Milan) Gajic made sure that got turned
off.”

In the Gold medal game, Tambellini and Montoya got the chance to
go one on one.

“He had a breakaway on me,” Montoya said, before
smiling and adding: “He says he missed by an inch.

“I saw (it was Tambellini) at the last second. The only
spot he goes is glove. Our scouting report said that, so I knew
what to do.”

Tambellini said he had just collided with a player at the
blueline and was slightly disoriented as he skated toward the goal.
But he concedes he was going glove side all the way.

While it is easy to assume that Montoya should come back to
college hockey and cruise past Michigan’s CCHA opponents, he
doesn’t believe that’s true. But he felt that college
hockey helped him out in Finland.

“Before we played Canada, they put the whole Canadian fan
section right behind me and all I could think about was how this is
college hockey all over again,” Montoya said. “It
wasn’t a big deal. I’m used to the heckling and know
how to zone it out.”

All three players said the World Juniors were a great
experience, and while the travel and time difference hasn’t
been easy, they’re back in Ann Arbor reenergized.

“It was so special to be playing for our country,”
Tambellini said. “We would wake up in the morning and have 10
pages of e-mails wishing us good luck and thanking us for playing
so well for our country. The passion behind the Canadian team
during the whole tournament is something you don’t see
often.

“That was the best experience I’ve ever had in the
game of hockey. I was just dying to get to the rink today. I feel
the best I’ve ever felt.”

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