Last season, the Michigan hockey team relied on starting goaltender Strauss Mann to win close games. On his way to being named a finalist for Big Ten Goaltender of the Year, Mann posted a .930 save percentage and allowed just 1.89 goals per game.
Mann had been a mainstay for the Wolverines since his sophomore year. Mann’s .939 save percentage and 1.85 goals against average led him to Big Ten Goaltender of the Year honors that season
But Mann left the Wolverines to sign a professional contract this offseason, forgoing his senior year of eligibility. A hole suddenly emerged in Michigan’s lineup where one of its steadiest presences once stood.
Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo, the backup on last year’s squad, will look to fill that role this season.
“Eric Portillo really made great strides last year,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said on Sept. 28. “We had to find a way to get him more games.”
Portillo isn’t a stranger to facing skilled opponents. He backstopped a 5-1 victory over No. 16 Notre Dame last year and also shut out No. 4 Minnesota for 32 minutes after Strauss Mann was pulled.
But while Portillo handled NCAA firepower in limited action last season, he hasn’t proven he can do so in high frequency. Only three of Portillo’s five starting nods last season were quality starts.
To put that in perspective, Mann had 15 quality starts in 21 games last season. Minnesota goaltender Jack LaFontaine — the reigning Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and a former Wolverine — produced 23 quality starts in 29 starts. So while Portillo gave his team a chance to win most of the time he took the ice, he did so with less consistency than some of the Big Ten’s best goaltenders. Part of that can be explained by his scarcity of starts, but he’ll have to pick up that pace to give the Wolverines a better chance to win.
Some of those starts may have been hindered by Portillo’s aggressive play style. He often roamed out on the edge of the crease, creating holes in his positioning that opponents took advantage of.
Portillo will likely play a majority of Michigan’s games this season, facing the wear and tear that comes with being the starter. Many will come against high-powered opponents like No. 11 Wisconsin, No. 1 Massachusetts and No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth.
That kind of usage may seem arduous, but it’s something Portillo has seen throughout his career. He played 26 games for Frölunda’s J20 club during the 2018-19 season, playing against Sweden’s top talent and posting the best numbers in the league.
The same happened a year before he came to the Wolverines. Portillo led the Dubuque Fighting Saints to a second-place ranking in the USHL and received Goaltender of the Year honors.
It’s important to note that Portillo spent the last year polishing his game, learning under the tutelage of Mann.
“I learned a lot of small things that you need to know at this level,” Portillo said. “It’s all about preparation: eating right, sleeping right and then just coming mentally focused to practice every day.”
He also benefited from working with Buffalo Sabres goaltending development coach Seamus Kotyk, who offered advice on how to be efficient in his game.
While Portillo looked like the obvious heir-apparent when Mann left, he needed to earn his spot on the depth chart by beating out sophomore goaltender Noah West, a Robert Morris transfer. Beating out competition from below provides a good indicator that Portillo could perform well in the starting role.
“You gotta come prepared to practice and ready to fight,” Portillo said. “I think that’s a great problem to have. It was the same thing last year with me and (Mann) and (senior Jack) Leavy.”
Now, as the Wolverines eye a season with realistic championship potential, they can only hope that Portillo parlays his work off the ice into success this season.