Northern Michigan goaltender Craig Kowalski stepped out of the Yost Ice Arena visitors” lockerroom Friday night and into a sea of green and sonorous cheers.
The sophomore raised his fist in victory, sending the throng of about 100 Northern fans into a frenzy, prompting a brief chant of “Kowalski.” He had just done something that had not been done in over 50 years shut out Michigan in two consecutive appearances in Ann Arbor.
Last February, as a freshman, Kowalski stoned all 25 shots he faced to shut out Michigan, a team that would later play in the Frozen Four 2-0.
Kowalski followed that performance with a 1-0 overtime shutout of the Wolverines last Friday. In the win, he faced 28 shots, a quarter of which came on the powerplay. But like most superb goaltenders, he received help from his defense, which was able to stop 17 shots from getting through.
While not as sharp Saturday night, Kowalski still played well enough to win 5-3 and complete Northern Michigan”s first sweep of Michigan since 1984.
His performance in the two games earned him the title of CCHA Defensive Player of the Week. It is the second time in as many weeks that he has received the honor.
What makes the victories sweeter for the goaltender is that he is from neighboring Clinton Township and wanted to be a Wolverine growing up. Unfortunately for the Michigan coaching staff, had it not been for an off year in the goalie-recruiting cycle, Kowalski would be wearing maize and blue right now.
“We”ve always liked Craig Kowalski,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We essentially recruited him but told him he would play behind Josh Blackburn for two years. At the time he was interested in Michigan and we talked to him. Our staff loved him as a kid and as a goalie.”
Michigan had three experienced goaltenders last year and could not have found playing time for the talented recruit. In addition, Michigan had also been recruiting standout goaltender, Jason Bacashihua, who would also have challenged Kowalski for playing time.
“He is from down here and would have loved to have come to Michigan, but the recruiting cycle didn”t work for him,” Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley said.
As a freshman last year, Kowalski split time with then-senior goaltender Dan Ragusett from the start of the season. In his rookie year, Kowalski struggled to become comfortable winning in just seven out of 18 starts with a 2.73 goals against average.
The decision to give the freshman playing time is starting to pay dividends for Comley. With experience under his belt, Kowalski looks like one of the best goalies in the CCHA, with a 1.71 goals against average with a .942 save percentage. In addition, the sophomore has yet to lose a game in four starts.
“It is really important for him to go out and establish himself early and I think he has done that in our games so far,” said Northern Michigan senior Chad Theuer.