October 23, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East: Youth Movement Between the Pipes

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

BOSTON — The puck found its way through a few pairs of skates and onto the stick of New Hampshire senior Paul Thompson in the slot. The winger quickly turned and eyed the top corner over the right shoulder of Northeastern goaltender Chris Rawlings.

After a quick dangle to pull Rawlings left, Thompson snapped the pucked, and the UNH fan section, which made the short drive south to watch their Wildcats, erupted to celebrate their 2-1 lead.

Twelve months ago, their cheers may not have come in vain. Twelve months ago, Rawlings, then a freshmen, may have bit on Thompson's quick move and allowed the sniper an easy goal.

But, that was 12 month ago. Rawlings’ growth may be difficult to notice with the Huskies still winless in 2010-11, but he’s no longer the goaltender fresh out of the British Columbia Hockey League. He’s still 6-foot-7, and getting the puck past him still requires a nifty pass or shot capable of finding the inch of twine not filled by his frame. But he’s more than that now. He’s a goaltender with a .942 save percentage and 1.93 goals-against average in four starts this season.

The sophomore Rawlings looked Thompson’s move off and stayed upright, easily deflecting the puck to the corner and preserving the tie for the youthful Huskies. He allowed another later before his Huskies promptly tied the game, 2-2, and it ended that way with Rawlings stopping a career-high 43 shots.

“He’s such a big guy that, when his body is in front of the puck, he tends to make the saves look fairly routine,” Northeastern coach Greg Cronin said.

“He’s good. I’ve said it before that you could call this game goaltending. If your goalie’s really good then you have a chance to win ... If Chris plays well then we have a chance to win games every night.”

About 190 feet from Rawlings stood another goaltender aching to prove himself as legitimate No. 1 goaltender in Hockey East. New Hampshire’s Matt DiGirolamo, unlike Rawlings, spent the last two seasons on the bench while the departed Brian Foster led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament.

In the past, UNH fans knew without worry who would be their club’s No. 1. But DiGirolamo’s first two years in Durham, N.H., were summarized mostly by sporadic playing time and forgettable performances. However, even with freshman Jeff Wyer joining the program this season, UNH coach Dick Umile hasn’t hesitated to place his hopes in DiGirolamo’s hands.

The differences between Rawlings DiGirolamo don’t stop with their playing time. While Rawlings stands 6-foot-7, DiGirolamo is listed at a generous 5-foot-9 and relies on his athleticism more than positioning.

Entering Saturday’s match, DiGirolamo numbers were, like many of the eight starts he made in his first two years with the Wildcats - forgettable. His goals-against average stood at a lofty 3.57, while his save percentage hovered just below .900. Also differing from Rawlings, DiGirolamo opposed perennial NCAA powers Miami and Michigan in his first three starts of the season, while the Wildcats posted a 1-1-1 record.

“I think Matt’s playing well and with a lot of confidence. He’s already proved it against Miami and Michigan,” UNH coach Dick Umile said. “Then to come and play a big road game with a great crowd and a great atmosphere like [Friday’s with Northeastern] that turned into an overtime game.”

At times, in between the 37-save performance he boasted to match Rawlings’ equally remarkable night, the inexperience DiGirolamo still struggles with was on display. Rebounds, namely, were his issue against Northeastern. At 3 minutes, 19 seconds of the first period, Northeastern’s Mike McLaughin snuck a rebound off his own breakway shot under DiGirolamo, and the Huskies’ second goal resulted from equally poor handling of a rebound.

“I thought he did fine. He had trouble on the tying goal; he lost [the puck] in his feet,” Umile said. “There was a scrum in front of the net, and he probably didn’t know where the puck was. He played well. He hung in there.”

Hanging in there, waiting for the opportunity is something he became familiar with in the past two seasons. Waiting for the opportunity to become the No. 1 goaltender was difficult at times, but it’s clear he’s better for it as his performance steadily improves in the season’s early stages.

“Just being here with the coaches, Foster and everyone else on the team [in the last two years] really helped groom me to become [the goaltender] I am right now,” DiGirolamo said. “I still have a ton to learn, but, for right now, [the two seasons on the bench] helped a lot.”

Throughout Hockey East, young goaltenders appear to be a question for most teams – Massachusetts freshman Jeff Teglia has started the last two games with senior Paul Dainton injured, Massachusetts-Lowell has started a pair of freshman after graduating Carter Hutton and Nevin Hamilton and Maine's hope lies in sophomore Shawn Sirman and freshmen Dan Sullivan Marine Ouellette after Scott Darling was released from the team.

For New Hampshire and Northeastern, their youthful netminders don’t share much in common, but, if either team hopes to play into March, their success levels will have to be identical.

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