Caught In the Net
Wolverines' Iffy Goaltending Situation Holds Key to NCAA Success
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. The litany of great goaltenders at the University of Michigan attest to the reason why the Wolverines are making their 16th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Starting with Steve Shields in 1991 and running through Marty Turco, Josh Blackburn and Al Montoya, goaltending has been the one consistent and constant factor in Michigan's success.
But when Montoya gave up his senior season to turn pro, all that changed this season for the Wolverines, who enter the West Regional at Ralph Engelstad Arena here in the rare role of an underdog.
Senior Noah Ruden and freshman Billy Sauer have virtually split playing time in goal this season. Neither, though, has the gaudy statistics posted by their predecessors.
That makes for the possibility of a short run for the Wolverines in the NCAA tournament, as they enter the West Regional as the No. 3 seed behind top-seeded and host North Dakota, Michigan's first opponent.
Ruden, the likely starter here, has played in 22 games and carries a 2.86 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. Sauer has been in 23 games, with a 3.04 goals-against average and .896 save percentage.
In contrast, Michigan's single-season school record for best goals-against average is 2.16 by Turco. The Wolverine season record for best save percentage is .917 by Montoya.
So if Michigan coach Red Berenson feels a bit unsettled about his goaltending at this crucial stage of the season, it's understandable.
"Montoya would have been a senior this year, but that opened the door for Ruden, who never expected to play, and for Sauer, who probably didn't expect to be coming to Michigan this year," Berenson said Thursday in Grand Forks.
"But between the two of them, they've done a pretty good job," Berenson said. "They've both had their moments where they've been rock-solid, and they've both had their moments where they weren't."
It likely will take goaltending of the "rock-solid" variety this weekend to get the Wolverines back to the Frozen Four, in search of their record 10th NCAA title, their first since 1998 and just their third since 1964.
"I think the big thing is that they've (Ruden and Sauer) been a little bit like our team, inconsistent," Berenson said. "On a good night, Noah can win a game for us or give us a chance to win, and Billy can as well."
But yet it's different for the Wolverines without that one go-to guy in goal.
"We've had a dominant goalie before," Berenson said. "I can't say that's true this year."
Going into a regional not as the favorite is a bit of a twist for the Wolverines as well.
"Definitely," Berenson said. "We're as much of an underdog as you can imagine coming into this tourney. Us and Holy Cross are really underdogs, and that's unusual. But that's the way it is."
The Wolverines aren't exactly rolling into this tournament on a high note, either.
Michigan is 8-8-4 in its last 20 games, a big comedown for the Wolverines, who started the season fast with a 9-1-1 mark out of the gate and No. 1 national ranking.
"We haven't been able to put back-to-back games or back-to-back weekends together all season," Berenson said.
The Wolverines haven't played North Dakota since Oct. 12, 2002, when the Sioux beat Michigan 5-4 in overtime in the College Hockey Showcase in Buffalo, N.Y. They used to meet on a regular basis when Michigan was still a member of the WCHA.
The Buffalo Showcase in 2002 was the college debut for Montoya as well as heralded Sioux rookie Zach Parise. Parise would have been a senior this season, but he now plays for the New Jersey Devils after turning pro following his sophomore season.
Berenson, who has won two NCAA titles in his 22 seasons at Michigan, was a two-time All-America player at Michigan.
He nearly went to college at North Dakota. though.
"I nearly came to North Dakota myself as a player in 1958," said Berenson, who had been playing junior hockey in Canada for the Regina (Sask.) Pats.
"I chose Michigan because Al Renfrew (Michigan coach at the time) used to coach at North Dakota, and he was able to convince me to go to Michigan," Berenson said.
"Notwithstanding, they have a great tradition here (North Dakota) and Michigan has a great tradition. Both have been around a long time and have had great moments, great players and great teams."
This weekend, though, Michigan may need a great weekend from Ruden — who has drawn the last four starts in goal — to advance on to the Frozen Four.