Blake Pietila put up numbers this season that rival the best goaltenders in college hockey.
The Michigan Tech netminder is 14-9-0 with a 1.81 goals-against average, a .934 save percentage and three shutouts this season, the latter three statistics ranking second in the WCHA.
Yet the standout sophomore wasn’t named to the All-WCHA First, Second or Third Teams. That alone speaks volumes to the quality of goaltending in the WCHA.
Pietila is also not one of the four goalies who got their teams to the WCHA semifinals, which begin at 2:07 p.m. today when top-seeded Minnesota State faces sixth-seeded Northern Michigan at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato. No. 4 seed Bemidji State and No. 2 Lake Superior State are set to meet at 7:37 p.m. in the other semifinal.
The four goalies who did make it to Mankato are expected to make life difficult for opposing offenses this weekend, when the WCHA will crown its postseason champion, the team that will get the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
Will it be No. 3-ranked Minnesota State (20-3-1) and junior goalie Dryden McKay, the WCHA’s Player of the Year and top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award?
Will it be Northern Michigan, backstopped by freshman Rico DiMatteo, the goalie named to the 2021 WCHA All-Rookie Team?
Will Bemidji State and senior Zach Driscoll — the All-WCHA Third Team goalie — be the ones lifting the Sauer Trophy on Saturday night?
Or will that honor belong to Lake Superior State and senior Mareks Mitens, the Third Team All-WCHA goalie who has a 1.84 GAA and a .933 save percentage?
“I don’t know that in all my years as a player or a coach that I’ve been in a league with this strong of goaltending,” Northern Michigan head coach Grant Potulny said. “There’s a goalie we played last week (Bowling Green’s Eric Dop) who has a .930 save percentage and he wasn’t even all-league.
“Defense has won the day to get teams here and that’s been the biggest thing for us as of late. We defend first and try to give ourselves a chance. With the goalies in this league, you can’t fall behind by more than a goal.”
The strength of the goalies who didn’t get their teams to this week’s WCHA final four says as much about the league’s high-caliber netminders as the ones who are in Mankato today, hoping to lead their teams to a conference championship.
Bowling Green’s Dop, Michigan Tech’s Pietila, Alabama Huntsville’s David Fessenden (2.94 GAA, .910 save pct.) and Ferris State’s Logan Stein (member of the gold-medal winning U.S. World Junior Championship team) all have resumes that make them worthy of All-WCHA consideration.
“There’s really great goaltending in our league,” Lake Superior State coach Damon Whitten said. “You see that every night. We just came off a series against Alabama Huntsville, where Fessenden had a strong year, too. You have to prepare for it every night in our league. It’s that way all across college hockey.”
Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore said strong goaltending is of the utmost importance this time of year, when one loss in the single-elimination format could mean the end of a team’s season.
“No question, there are lots of good goaltenders in this league,” Serratore said, “and come playoffs you need good goaltending, especially in these one-game shots.”
Serratore’s goaltender has been his usual outstanding self this season. Driscoll, a senior from Apple Valley, got off to a slow start. His goals-against average hovered around the 3.00 mark in early January, but he has been outstanding down the stretch, allowing a total of seven goals over the past six games, including just two total in a first-round sweep of Michigan Tech last weekend.
“Zach has been the backbone to our team,” Bemidji State junior forward Owen Sillinger said. “He gives us an opportunity to win every night, with the saves he makes, the timely saves. I mean, the guy’s been incredible this year, and in past years as well. With him on our side we feel like we can do anything.”
At Northern Michigan, the freshman DiMatteo is one of four goalies to start a game this season. The 6-foot-3, 161-pounder joined the Wildcats at the start of January after playing 10 games for Lone Star of the NAHL in the first part of this season. He has been a diamond in the rough for NMU, going 6-4-1 with a 2.82 GAA and .911 save percentage. More importantly, he grabbed the starting job and didn’t let it go, earning the trust of the Wildcats’ coaching staff.
Mitens and McKay, on the other hand, have held down their starting jobs for multiple years. Mitens has started 86 games for the Lakers in his career, including 22 this season, when he’s gone 11-5-3.
McKay is widely considered to be the best goalie in the country this season. A Richter Award finalist and a top-10 Hobey Baker finalist, McKay has allowed just 27 goals in 22 starts this season, and only 17 of those goals have come at five-on-five.
“Teams in our league play hard,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “Not that teams in other leagues don’t, but they defend hard, too, so we’re going to have to … you have to earn everything you get.
“That says a lot about the goaltenders in this league. I don’t think there’s going to be an easy night, no matter who you’re playing.”