Before the season, one of the big question marks for the Michigan hockey team was its goaltending situation. Last year’s goalie Al Montoya left after his junior year, leaving behind backup Noah Ruden and 17-year-old freshman Billy Sauer. Sauer got the nod and has performed admirably in four appearances, allowing just 2.2 goals per game with a .922 save percentage.
Sauer showed that he was capable of rising to the occasion in big games when he allowed just two goals against Boston College and stopped 36 shots against Michigan State. But there are still some questions that Sauer must answer. How will he deal with a raucous crowd at an away game? Can he avoid some of the soft goals that have troubled him so far? Will senior Ruden’s presence as a backup affect his play?
Berenson seems to think Sauer is up to the task.
“(Billy) has shown that he can keep us in the game when things are going against us,” Berenson said. “I like his presence in the net.”
Sauer does not turn 18 until Jan. 6. This makes him the youngest starting goaltender in the CCHA. His ability to adapt at such a young age was one of the major concerns for the Michigan coaching staff, but Sauer’s play has calmed some of those worries.
“I wasn’t worried about where he was when he got here,” Berenson said. “He needs some confidence, some experience, and to grow with our team, but I really like our goaltending situation now.”
Last year, Sauer played in the United States Hockey League for the Chicago Steel, where he performed well in what many consider to be a very high-scoring junior league. He had a 3.05 goals against average with a .904 save percentage. But Sauer admits there is a big difference between the USHL and college hockey.
“The forwards are a lot more skilled,” Sauer said. “There’s definitely a lot more passing in the offensive zone. The USHL was more hitting and rough hockey, so now guys get the puck up the ice quicker than before.”
Before Montoya decided to forgo his senior year to play for the New York Rangers, the Wolverines were not planning to bring Sauer to Ann Arbor this year. The team was content to allow him to play another year in the USHL. But when Montoya made his announcement, Sauer was given the vacated scholarship.
“When I came here, I just said I was going to be my own goalie and do my own thing,” Sauer said.
Though Sauer was given a full scholarship, Ruden remains a walk-on despite several stellar performances last season in the Great Lakes Invitational. The Michigan coaching staff has not named a permanent starting goalie for the rest of season. Instead, they will decide on a week-to-week basis. At first glance, this philosophy seems to be a positive for Sauer.
“It helps in practice to have Noah there because it pushes you a lot,” Sauer said. “Knowing that there is another goalie that can come in and play adds some pressure to perform well every week. But you (have to) try and look past that and play your own game.”
Now that teams have film of Sauer from the first five games of the season, they will be better able to exploit his weaknesses. To counteract that advantage, Michigan goaltending coach Stan Matwijiw has a private session with Sauer once a week in which they address some of the issues from the previous weekend’s games.
“Goaltending is something that you’re constantly learning and improving on,” Matwijiw said. “The bottom line is that you have to constantly be getting better, and once you stop doing that you’re dead.
“The biggest thing for Billy is improving his ice savvy. Obviously, he’s done something right to get here, but every goalie, Billy included, has the same problem of cheating physically, as opposed to being one step ahead of the game mentally.”
Sauer’s ability to adapt mentally as the season wears on will be essential if this team is to live up to its current No. 1 ranking. If Sauer can handle the pressure, then maybe the Wolverines will be making a road trip to Milwaukee in April for the Frozen Four.