The Sauer Taste is a Good One Now For Michigan
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ALBANY, N.Y. This is the way it was supposed to be for Billy Sauer. This is the way it's supposed to be for a Michigan goaltender.
Sauer's 27-save shutout performance over Clarkson in the East Regional final Saturday was more impressive than those 27 saves even suggest. And ever yet more impressive when considering where Sauer came from.
Just two seasons ago, his freshman year, Sauer was yanked in the playoffs in favor of a walk-on senior. Last year, Sauer improved, then had the worst game of his year at the wrong time — getting clobbered by North Dakota.
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This year, it's been Sauer's year. And Saturday was the culmination — at least for now.
"He came back after a tough finish last year. And he didn't have a bad year last year — Billy Sauer had a good year last year — he just had a bad last game," said Michigan coach Red Berenson. "And you don't have a chance to come back and play that game again, so he had to live with that all summer."
Sauer was to be the next in a long line of successful Michigan goaltenders — Steve Shields, Marty Turco, Al Montoya — the lineage was clear. But a funny thing happened — because Montoya left after only three seasons, and Sauer was called upon a year earlier than anyone desired, as a 17-year old.
"He wanted to be the Michigan starting goalie, but we weren't as excited about him coming in that next year," Berenson said. "But when Al left, he was the guy. We promised him, so we had to give him the job."
Oh, sure, he was prepared, as a contingency. He graduated high school early just in case.
But with just 24 games of juniors under his belt, Sauer wasn't really ready. And everyone knew it. Berenson knew it, Sauer knew it, and perhaps worst of all, his teammates knew it.
"Last year, his glove let him down the beginning of the year, and that's what he focused on, his glove," said Michigan senior forward Chad Kolarik. "And this year he came back with a chip on his shoulder, and he's proven himself as a legit No. 1 goaltender who can make a difference in the playoffs."
But those teammates didn't do much to help him either, and those that are here now, basking in the fruits of their labor together, know it.
"We were an offensive team, we played for ourselves," Kolarik said. "We had a bunch of egos on the team, we didn't backcheck well and we left our 'D' and goalie out to dry. This year, it's different. The freshman are real emotional, real excited to be here, and they backcheck like the wind. Carl Hagelin is a perfect examples, he's alway backchecking hard, and that just helps Billy."
"It's definitely been a learning curve for me," Sauer said. "I came in here pretty young as a 17-year old, and it was an offensive-minded team, and I struggled at time. I wasn't as mentally tough as I think I am now. I couldn't play every night. I had my glimpses, but at the same time, I showed nights where I struggles. So it's been a learning thing for me. I feel like I'm playing the best hockey I've ever played."
Berenson admitted concern that throwing Sauer to the wolves early may have permanently prevented him from ever realizing his potential.
"I can't look back, but the point is, Billy has taken us to another level, and he's the goalie we expected to recruit from the get go," Berenson said.
Sauer worked on some mechanical things to improve, but the mental part was where he needed the most help. He worked with a team psychologist, who he said helped a lot.
"I'm just prepared for everything now. Anything thrown my way," said Sauer. "I handle goals better now, I push it aside, especially if I get scored on early.
"Earlier, if I got scored on, it was like 'uh-oh, this isn't a good night. And that's when things don't go well for you."
There haven't been any of those this year, and that's a big reason why Michigan is going to the Frozen Four.
"Two years ago we were hoping he didn't lose us a game, now he's one we think can steal one," Kolarik said. "And that's a great feeling when you're going to Denver."