When asked if he remembered his last high-pressure start, Minnesota freshman goaltender Erik Young hesitated for a moment.
After some deliberation the walk-on from White Bear Lake had an answer. The last time Young made a pressure start, he faced Hill Murray High School in a section final.
So at least he’s used to this weekend’s kind of pressure.
With two weekends left in the regular season, Minnesota hosts top-ranked Wisconsin starting tonight. The Gophers are in dire need of points to stay in the top half of the WCHA standings.
They’ll have to get them with a walk-on freshman making his first collegiate start in goal.
With starter Adam Hauser suffering from mononucleosis and backup Pete Samargia recovering from knee surgery, Young will be thrown into the middle of a thundering race for position in the WCHA.
“It’s certainly not the way I imagined it,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “But it’s a chance for an unbelievable story.”
That story begins last season. Minnesota began the season in a goalie controversy which eventually ended with Adam Hauser being named the starter and Willy Marvin leaving the team.
Hauser started 68 of the next 69 Minnesota games. At the beginning of this season, scholarship goaltender Pete Samargi of Eveleth was brought in as Hauser’s backup.
The Gophers decided to carry three netminders when Young opted to walk on at Minnesota rather than play for the St. Paul Vulcans.
Young, whose only other action this season came during the third period of an exhibition against Norway’s Valerenga, found out he would start when he got to the rink Wednesday.
“Coach told me I was playing, and I couldn’t believe it at first. I’ve never been in this situation before. I’ve never been a backup, so it’s new to me,” Young said.
It will be new to the rest of the team as well. The last time the Gophers skated in front of a goalie other than Adam Hauser was the second game of the season at Maine.
But coach Lucia said his team won’t change anything when preparing for the Badgers.
“We can’t change anything in the next two days, so we’ll just put our confidence in Erik and play,” Lucia said. “We obviously can’t hang him out to dry though.”
If the team is worried about having a new guy manning the crease, it hasn’t showed. Young received a rousing cheer when he was announced as the starter on the ice Wednesday.
“We’ll just let him be,” junior defenseman Dylan Mills said. “Goalies are goalies. They’re all a little weird. We’ll just treat him like Adam.”
Young himself said he is looking forward to a chance to prove himself.
“I have to look at it as a positive, as an opportunity to play. Wisconsin is certainly a great team. Although I’ve only seen them on TV I hope after I stop a few shots I can settle down and just play hockey,” Young said.
Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer also downplayed the loss of Hauser, saying his team was healthy and looking to clinch the MacNaughton Cup at Mariucci Arena.
The Badgers are loaded top to bottom with outstanding talent. They boast excellent team speed and puck-handling ability.
“I think it will be a great skating series,” Sauer said. “They’re a much better team than when we faced them earlier in the year.”
While he wasn’t worried about who Minnesota would have in goal, Sauer had spent some time thinking about the Gophers’ WCHA-leading power play. About 10 seconds, to be exact.
“We can’t take penalties, it’s as simple as that,” Sauer said. “That’s the best way to stop their power play.”
With an extra man, Minnesota has been nearly unstoppable this season. The Gophers have converted 27.5 percent of their power plays.
While the Badgers will attempt to discipline their game to keep Minnesota’s power play unit on the bench, the Gophers will look for extra defensive discipline of their own.
“We’ll have to do the same things of defense,” senior captain Nate Miller said. “But hopefully with Erik back there the guys will bear down and do all the little things: get sticks up in front, clear rebounds and play a solid, smart defensive game.”
While Young is untested, Miller is upbeat about the young goalie’s potential.
“Hey, we’re playing the no. 1 team in the country, who happens to be a huge rival of ours. He might as well come in in style,” Miller said.
Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]