There is an old saying in hockey, one that’s very similar to a critique about starting quarterbacks in football. It goes something like this:
“If you have two No. 1 goalies this late in the season, you don’t have a No. 1 goalie.”
Yeah … about that.
Minnesota Duluth proved the saying to be dead wrong against North Dakota last weekend in the regional final in Fargo, North Dakota, needing both freshman Zach Stejskal and sophomore Ryan Fanti to prevail 3-2 in five overtimes to reach a fourth-consecutive NCAA Frozen Four next week in Pittsburgh. UMD will play Massachusetts in a rematch of the 2019 NCAA championship game at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 8, at PPG Paints Arena.
Stejskal — a 6-foot-4, 215-pound freshman out of Cohasset, Minnesota, and Grand Rapids High School — played 124 minutes and 37 seconds of the longest game in NCAA men’s or women’s tournament history, stopping 57 of the 59 shots the Fighting Hawks sent his way before having to leave in the fourth overtime due to cramping.
Fanti — a 6-3, 195-pound sophomore from Thunder Bay, Ontario — stopped all six shots he saw over the final 17:36 of that game after coming off bench at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, or a little over six hours after he had taken the ice for pregame warmups at Scheels Arena.
“I still can’t believe that he made six saves. It’s unbelievable, seriously,” Stejskal said of Fanti coming in cold in the fourth overtime. Both goalies were guests this week on the News Tribune’s Bulldog Insider Podcast. “I’ve probably complained about getting put in during the second period cold. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like going in there during the fourth overtime. Unbelievable.”
MORE 2021 NCAA FROZEN FOUR COVERAGE:
- Bulldog Insider Podcast: Five OTs later, UMD goalies Fanti and Stejskal prep for their first Frozen Four
‘Swallow your pride’
Stejskal said his cramping began Saturday during the third overtime and it was, “pretty bad then,” but he felt he was still able to play. Four-plus minutes into the fourth overtime, just after midnight on Sunday, that was no longer the case. Now the cramping was “horrible” and he could no longer stand, needing help getting off the ice.
Stejskal admitted he probably should have pulled himself sooner.
“I’ve thought about it the last couple of days. You just have to swallow your pride. I know I could not play the game anymore,” said Stejskal, who enters the Frozen Four with a .934 save percentage and 1.75 goals against average in eight starts. “If I didn’t have trust in my other goalies, I would have tried, but obviously Ryan has played a hell of a year, played the majority of the games and he was ready for the situation.”
Swallowing your pride, doing what is best for the team and being ready for any situation has been a staple of the Bulldogs goaltending room under volunteer goaltending coach Brant Nicklin, who in practice doesn’t designate a hierarchy of No. 1, 2 or 4 between Fanti, Stejskal and redshirt junior Ben Patt.
Nicklin is known for treating every single goalie as the No. 1, which is why after not playing a minute last season, Fanti was prepared to start 19 of the Bulldogs’ 27 games this year, and make one relief appearance Sunday morning in Fargo. He enters the Frozen Four with a .907 save percentage and 2.36 GAA.
It’s why Stejskal was ready for his postseason debut Saturday against North Dakota after making just seven starts during the regular season and playing in just three of UMD’s first 15 games.
“It's kind of a weird dynamic because we compete for the same spot, but you got to be happy if the other guy is doing well and you got to push each other every single day,” Stejskal said. “That's the only way you're going to get better. We talk about that, straight up, every single day because there's no hiding that there's only one job. But if I'm stubborn and I don't talk to Fanti, or vice versa, we're not gonna get better.”
“You're all playing for the same team,” added Fanti, echoing what his teammate said on the podcast. “Each and every one of us are competitors and we want to be in the net on that Friday or Saturday night. There's no doubt behind that, and I think that is just what pushes us to be better in practice every day.”
A waiting game
Goalies tend to be creatures of habit, and a habit both Fanti and Stejskal said they’ve appreciated over the years is knowing the night before a game who is and who isn’t starting in goal.
They haven’t always had that luxury this season, however. Sometimes coach Scott Sandelin has informed them of the starter the night before during a video session. Other times they have to wait until after the gameday morning skate.
“It’s the worst thing as a goalie,” Fanti said.
In defense of the Bulldogs’ coach, its been some time since Sandelin had to routinely think about who he was starting in goal during the postseason with an undisputed No. 1 the past seven seasons.
Kasimir Kaskisuo backstopped the Bulldogs to a pair of NCAA regional finals in 2014-15 and 2015-16, starting 75 of 80 games over two seasons. Hunter Miska started 39 of 42 games during UMD’s run to the first of now four Frozen Fours in 2016-17.
And then there was Hunter Shepard, who made an NCAA-record 115 consecutive starts from Oct. 21, 2017 until his final game as a Bulldog on March 7, 2020.
Fanti was the front runner at the start of the season to be the go-to-goalie, starting 11 of the first 12 games, including eight of the Bulldogs’ nine games in the NCHC Pod in Omaha, Nebraska. Stejskal started four of the final six regular season games, including the last two against St. Cloud State. Fanti then got the two starts at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Sandelin said Sunday he gave both goalies games at the end of the season to see if either of them would “run with it.” In the end, he lucked out their neither found a way to pull away from the other.
“It's a nice situation that we’ve had all year with goalies that we felt could win games for us,” Sandelin said after the 5OT win. “Ryan going in there was huge and obviously Zach played well too. They both get a lot of credit for tonight and the win.”