|Billy Sauer has the University of Michigan off to a 11-1 start |
Replacing a top-flight college hockey player at a historic program with nine national championship banners hanging from its rafters is no small task. Especially when you’re a 17-year old goalie and that school is the University of Michigan.
That’s the situation Colorado Avalanche prospect Billy Sauer walked into during the 2005-06 season. After accelerating his high school coursework and arriving at the school a year earlier than originally expected, Sauer replaced the departed Al Montoya, who had signed a professional contract with the New York Rangers.
From there, Sauer played in 23 games during his freshman season while trying to cope with the pressure that comes with being situated between the pipes for the Wolverines.
“I knew a lot of goalies that played here before me had a lot of success,” said Sauer. “Being young and coming into this program, there were a lot of expectations.”
Sauer experienced a fare share of ups and downs during his first two years in the Maize and Blue, which all came to a head during last year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines dropped a heart-breaker in a wild contest during the NCAA West Regional Semifinal at Pepsi Center. Michigan took a 3-1 lead less than five minutes into the game before North Dakota scored three straight to gain a 4-3 advantage. After another pair of Wolverine goals within the first minute of the second period, the Fighting Sioux rallied off four straight goals to earn an 8-5 win, ending Michigan’s season and leaving a bad taste in the goaltender’s mouth.
“The end of last season was tough to swallow,” said Sauer. “I can’t say that I got over it quickly, but I tried hard not to dwell on it. I just kept thinking that I had two more years and needed to make them count.”
And so far, he is doing just that.
|A bit of fine-tuning in Sauer's game has led to a 2.08 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage through the first 12 contests of the 2007-08 campaign |
After a somewhat disappointing sophomore season where he put up nearly identical numbers to his freshman year, Sauer has been producing his best stats since donning the Maize and Blue sweater. Through the first 12 games of his junior season, the netminder has posted an 11-1-0 record with a miniscule 2.08 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.
Sauer credits much of his improvement this year to new Michigan volunteer goalie coach Josh Blackburn. Having someone to work with on a daily basis has been great for Sauer, but even better is the fact that Blackburn is no stranger to what the young goaltender is going through.
Blackburn tended the nets for Michigan from 1998-2002 and posted a 92-38-20 record during his four seasons in Ann Arbor.
“He played here and has been in the same situations I’m in now, so we bounce things off each other,” said Sauer. “I’m also more experienced, so that helps. I kind of know the game better. I guess you could say I’m more of a student of the game now.”
While Sauer’s style hasn’t changed much over the past few years, Blackburn has been crucial in fine-tuning certain weaknesses in Sauer’s game, most importantly his depth. Staying out to challenge shooters rather than backing into the crease has been one of his main focuses this year.
It’s been equal parts Blackburn, improved fundamentals and confidence coming from a wealth of experience over the past few years that have made Sauer the elite goaltender he’s shown to be this season.
“I think the thing with Billy that’s very positive is there’s been a very substantial change at Michigan as far as personnel and you probably wouldn’t expect them to have as much success as previous years,” said Avalanche Director of Player Development Craig Billington. “But the reality is that they’re having some of the best success they’ve had in years and Billy’s been a big part of that.
“I know there was some disappointment in the finish from last year, but for him to rebound and compete and be mentally tough enough to give himself and his team the chance to compete is a good accomplishment.”
Consistency has also become a big part of his game, as evidenced by a career-long shutout streak of 128:30 that began midway through the second period on Nov. 3 against the University of Nebraska-Omaha and didn’t end until the second period of a Nov. 10 contest against the University of Alaska. The shutout streak bested Sauer’s personal record by over 30 minutes, and led to him being named CCHA Goaltender of the Week.
Sauer gained the same honor this past weekend during a sweep of Lake Superior State University. He allowed just three goals in a two-game sweep, making a combined 58 saves.
“This year, game in and game out, I’m trying to give our team the chance to win every night,” said the netminder. “I don’t want the guys in front of me having to worry about me in net. I want them to know that if I’m behind them, we’ll have a chance to win the game.”