No goalie in recent Michigan history has caused as many clenched fists, gritted teeth or nail-biting as senior Billy Sauer.
We’ve seen ugly shots ruin a shutout in a game’s closing minutes. And we’ve also seen him save 50 pucks against a top-flight team.
We saw Sauer get pummeled by North Dakota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament two years ago in Denver. And we also saw him comeback last season as one of the country’s top goalies.
But then we also watched him let up three goals in the first period against Notre Dame in the Frozen Four, struggling once again in Denver, and shaking our confidence in the future of his game.
So everyone is wondering: Is there a chance that the season will end with Sauer getting shelled for a third straight year? Can you give Sauer a third chance to lead this team, even with promising sophomore Bryan Hogan waiting in the wings?
Yes. And here’s why: He’s proven himself over an entire season as one of the nation’s best goalies. He’s proven he can come back from nightmare games that would haunt most players for the rest of their career.
And most importantly, he still has something left to prove: That he can lead Michigan to a national championship.
There’s no question in Michigan coach Red Berenson’s mind that goaltending is a strength for the Wolverines. Sauer returns from a great junior season and Hogan showcased an ability to step up when called upon last year. But at the moment, there’s also no answer as to who will start for the Wolverines, and that could be troublesome down the line.
“I’m not even sure exactly what they’re going to do,” said Michigan goaltending coach Josh Blackburn, adding the situation will likely be reevaluated on a weekly or monthly basis. “We’re unsure. I have no idea what we’re doing.”
Last season, the question answered itself. Berenson said the job was open for competition at CCHA Media Day, but mononucleosis sidelined Hogan until mid-November, and Sauer, the starter by default, established himself as an integral part of the team’s unexpected 22-2 start.
This year, Hogan is mono-free and back in the mix and giving Michigan depth. Now, each goalie has the difficult task of getting in a rhythm from the outset with much less game time.
To no one’s surprise, Sauer and Hogan split time in the opening weekend of exhibitions. Berenson plans to employ the same strategy against St. Lawrence this weekend.
But the decision is not as simple as just naming Sauer, the more experienced of the two, the starter. What if he gets injured and Hogan isn’t up to game speed after riding the bench?
Splitting every other start, in the long term, isn’t viable either. If one goalie gets hot, it’ll be tempting to ride the streak. And that’s a slippery slope.
Yes, experimenting with a two-goalie system may work in the regular season, and it has for many teams, but then who starts in single-elimination playoff games?
One solution is a set-in-stone rotation once the CCHA season starts. Say, Sauer starts three out of every four games, and Hogan comes in for the fourth. This way you’re not sending mixed messages as to who the primary starter is, you keep Hogan relatively up to game speed and most importantly, Sauer gets regular breaks from the mentally exhausting season like he did from Hogan at the end of last year.
When Hogan comes in, it won’t be a question of Sauer’s ability, it’ll be to give him a night off to stay fresh.
But for now, Berenson is sticking with alternating starts.
“Are they both ready to help us win? That’s what it really comes down to,” Berenson said. “If there’s one that’s way up here and the other one’s down here, we’re going to play the number-one goalie. But if they’re both up here, we might be able to play both goalies.”
That might work for now, but if this team’s going to make another Frozen Four run, there needs to be a clear No. 1 starter, and that’s Sauer.
— Michael Eisenstein can be reached at email@example.com.