As “Billy Sauer” chants reverberated in the Yost Ice Arena rafters during Michigan’s Friday night shutout win over Alaska, the junior’s transformation this year from a struggling to successful netminder was obvious to everyone watching.
But no one gazed up at the press box, where the man primarily responsible for the change, Michigan volunteer goalie coach Josh Blackburn, sat.
Sauer’s stats from his first two seasons barely resemble this year’s. His goals-against average is down by more than a goal, and his save percentage is now over the 90 percent hump. On top of that, Sauer just set a new personal-best shutout streak of 128:30 – more than 30 minutes better then his previous mark.
Put simply, it’s the 19-year-old’s best start as a Wolverine, and he’s no longer the brunt of criticism.
So where did Blackburn, Michigan’s netminder from 1999-2002, start with the goaltender?
“The biggest thing that we worked on was him playing out of the net more,” Blackburn said. “And him staying out when pressure was coming, staying out, not backing in.”
Rather than backing up toward the net after a defensive breakdown, Sauer now positions his giant white pads at the edge of the crease.
But aside from working on reading the rush and fine-tuning the fundamentals, Blackburn helped Sauer in the more intangible aspects of playing the position.
He’s now addressing aspects of Sauer’s game, such as how to prepare for and compose himself in games, something Sauer said he had never considered.
“This is the most coaching Billy has probably had on a week-to-week basis,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Whereas last year, our coach was here for a couple days, then he wouldn’t be here for three or four weeks.
“I think (Blackburn’s) presence alone has been huge for Billy Sauer.”
Sauer now has someone to help him through tough stretches. In the goalie world, which can be awfully lonely when pucks frequently find the back of the net, Blackburn is someone he can turn to.
“(Blackburn) knows what it takes,” Berenson said. “He knows the ins and outs of being a Michigan goalie, a starting goalie playing back-to-back. All the issues.”
But it’d be shortsighted not to realize the impact Blackburn, who holds the all-time best Michigan goals-against average, has had on the team as a whole. He has helped transform Sauer into a more confident player. And on a particularly young Michigan team, anchoring the Wolverines with strong goaltending is crucial.
Sauer is boldly challenging shooters and letting his talent shine through with his aggressive play.
“It’s definitely a big confidence booster back there, knowing that Billy is going to bail us out if we get beat or if they get a good scoring chance,” said Mark Mitera, the defense’s lone upperclassman.
But while the Yost faithful recognized Sauer’s improvement with cheers, Blackburn hopes Sauer isn’t noticed.
“(The goal is) the team not having to worry about him,” Blackburn said. “(That) they just know if Billy is in, he’s going to have a good game.”