While it’s been a season to remember for the Islanders, it’s also been a remarkable one for one of the team’s top goaltending prospects. Stephon Williams is a junior at Minnesota State and has led the Mavericks to the top seed in the NCAA Division-I Tournament, which commences this weekend.
Williams and the Mavericks have already captured the WCHA (Western Collegiate Hockey Association) Championship. Williams recorded a shutout – his fifth of the season – in a semi-final victory over Ferris State before defeating the Michigan Tech Huskies, then fourth-ranked nationally to claim the crown.
“It’s a feeling that I’m never going to forget,” Williams told NewYorkIslanders.com about lifting the Broadmoor Trophy as champions of the 10-team conference. “It’s one of the goals you set at the start of the year as a team and as individuals to win.”
The Islanders drafted Williams in the fourth round, 106th overall in 2013 following a standout freshman campaign with Minnesota State. As the team’s starting netminder, he finished 2012-13 with a 21-12-2 record, .924 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average. The WCHA honored Williams as its Rookie of the Year. That year was also just the second time Minnesota State qualified for the NCAA Tournament since it became a Division-I program in 1996.
Hip surgery the following summer interrupted Williams’ usual routine and prevented him from holding the starting job as a sophomore.
“Coming off a surgery like that can be hard,” Williams said. “I think it impacted me more mentally than physically. I wasn’t in the weight room or on the ice with the guys as much as I wanted to be.”
Islanders Director of Player Development and former defenseman Eric Cairns has spent time visiting Williams. He knows the Fairbanks, AK native better than anyone on the Islanders staff.
“He’s a bigger goalie [6-2, 190-lbs] and he’s athletic,” Cairns said. “Goaltending is a tough position since there are a lot of ups and downs, but his character is also high-end for me. He’s a glass half-full type of guy and he works hard.”
That mentality was put to the test last year as Williams only split time between the pipes as a sophomore in his return from the hip injury. During the 2013-14 season, the Mavericks won their first ever WCHA title and an automatic berth in the tournament.
This year however, any debate as to the starting netminder was put to rest very quickly as Williams began the season with an 11-1-0 record, including four shutouts.
He finished the season with a 25-5-3 record with a 1.64 goals against average and .926 save percentage. Williams’ win totals and goals against average rank second in the 59-team Division-I.
The Mavericks rolled to a 29-7-3 overall record including four wins in the conference tournament. Four more wins and the Mavericks would crown themselves National Champions for the first time in program history.
“We know we have a big challenge ahead of us,” Williams said. “Our team is becoming that team that takes on those challenges with the right attitude and we’re looking forward to it.”
In three prior appearances in the NCAA Division-I Tournament (2003, ’13, ’14), the Mavericks have yet to win a game. Williams hopes to change that during an opening round meeting against the Atlantic Hockey Association champion, Rochester Institute of Technology. Puck drop is at 4 p.m. Eastern Time this Saturday in South Bend, IN on the campus of Notre Dame and can be seen live on ESPNU.
“You can say it takes four game sevens to win a National NCAA Championship,” Cairns said. “I would like to hope that all our prospects will be able to go through something like that and achieve something to see how you do it. Some people believe you have to learn how to win. I think that’s part of the development process.”
Williams understands what needs to happen for his club to avoid another first-round ousting.
“Every shift is a key shift and if you don’t have a good shift, you have to answer with a great shift the next time you go out,” Williams said. “For goalies, if the first period didn’t go your way you have to have a great second two periods.”
Williams is one of just five players on the Minnesota State roster drafted by an NHL team. That figure goes with the territory of not being an established Division-I powerhouse yet. In comparison, the neighboring five-time National Champion University of Minnesota, is ranked eighth nationally and has 16 players who’ve been selected in the NHL Draft.
Rankings, draft picks and program history can be thrown out the window during the first few weeks of spring. For Williams and Minnesota State, it’s time to put to the test what they’ve been building these last few seasons.