No. 2 No More; Goalies Hold Key to all-Minnesota Battle
MSU's Zacharias and UM's Kangas have grabbed their respective starting spots by the horns this season
by Dan Myers/CHN Reporter
MANKATO, Minn. It's a question Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting and Minnesota head coach Don Lucia have answered plenty of times over the years; who's in net?
But the Mavericks' Mike Zacharias and the Gophers' Alex Kangas have helped lay that question to rest with more than stellar seasons. This weekend, the goalies will go head-to-head in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at the Alltel Center in Mankato, not just with the series at stake, but a likely NCAA bid on the line too.
Kangas entered this season as the second goalie behind incumbent starter Jeff Frazee. Minnesota State's Zacharias entered last season as the back-up to reigning All-Rookie goaltender Dan Tormey. But because of various circumstances, both have emerged as reliable No. 1s this season.
But the two have more in common than overcoming an incumbent starter. Both are Minnesota natives. It's almost a shoe-in that one of the two will be on the All-WCHA third team. And both received an abundance of playing time in the United States Hockey League, which helped both transition to the college game.
"Any time you can play a lot of games at a high level like that, it helps you out," Zacharias said. "You learn how to read things, you learn the speed of the game and you learn about going to the playoffs and learning that pressure. It gives you the learning tools to take with you to college."
Kangas, like Zacharias, credits the USHL for getting him ready for his career at Minnesota.
"That's the biggest thing that helped me along the way," Kangas said. "Playing in high school, I played every game but its only a 30-game season at the max. The USHL, that's a grind and you can't take a single shift off."
"I don't think there is any doubt about that," Mavericks head coach Troy Jutting said. "If you have played as many games as those kids have in junior hockey ... it helps you prepare for this level."
Gophers head coach Don Lucia agreed, crediting the USHL for preparing the Rochester, Minn., native as he ventures into his first collegiate playoff action.
"He (Kangas) had deep playoff runs each of those last two years," Lucia said. "So it's not like he came in as an 18-year old freshman like a lot of our kids are."
As a team, the Mavericks and Gophers are in unusual spots. In the eyes of many, Minnesota State — the No. 4 seed — is viewed as the underdog to No. 7-seeded Minnesota. The Gophers are 25-2-5 all-time against the Mavericks and are unbeaten in the teams' last 19 matchups, including a two-game sweep earlier this season. The sweep was the only WCHA double play for the Gophers all year.
But can Minnesota really be viewed as the favorite, playing on the road with a freshman goalie?
"I've played in big-time playoff games before, obviously not at this level," Kangas said. "This isn't the first time I've been in a do-or-die situation, though. But we have to go in there, play well, or our season is over."
Lucia admits Kangas has played much more than expected this season. "Probably 25 or 30 percent" is what Lucia envisioned him playing way back in October. But Frazee — a junior — struggled with his consistency and allowed some goals that he probably shouldn't have.
Enter Kangas, who despite his young age, has provided Minnesota with a veteran-like presence between the pipes.
"I don't think at the beginning of the season, we anticipated him being our go-to guy at the end of the year," Lucia said. "But hey, that's what you play the year for. He came in and earned the right to be our No. 1 goalie.
"That's been the best part of it. One time, he's given up more than three goals in a game. We're not a high-scoring team this year, but he's given us a chance to win every night he has played."
The same could be said for Zacharias. His 2.21 goals against average is almost a half goal lower than the school record of 2.65. His .920 save percentage is also among the best in school history. He's currently fourth in the WCHA with 17 victories.
"He's been very good and we're going to need him to be very good," Jutting said. "Neither team is going to win without good goaltending."
"Every time you can play every game, it's easier to get into a rhythm," Zacharias said. "I've just been lucky enough to have been given an opportunity and now I've gotta try and hold onto it."
Game times for this weekend's series are scheduled for 7:07 p.m. CST Friday, Saturday and Sunday if necessary. The games will be televised on Fox Sports Net North.