If there’s one area hockey coaches don’t want to worry about — yet are constantly worrying about — during the season it’s in goal.
For Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings, that position is an unknown entity this year.
“Our goaltending is wide open,” he said. “There are three guys competing for it.”
For the first time since he took over the program in 2012, Hastings has no experience with any of his goalies.
“If I’m the athlete, I’m excited about the opportunity,” Hastings said. “You’re not coming in to unseat a starter. If I’m the coach, which I am, I’m looking for someone to grab the reins and take the crease.”
With last year’s No. 1 goalie Connor LaCouvee graduating and heir-apparent Jason Pawloski leaving school with a year of eligibility still remaining, the Mavericks start the season with three new goaltenders.
“We go back to ground zero every year,” Hastings said. “It has to.”
One of the trio does have college experience, though, as senior Mathias Israelsson comes in, as LaCouvee did last year, as a graduate transfer. Israelsson spent the last three years at WCHA-rival Northern Michigan where he was mainly a backup to the league’s best goalie, Atte Tolvanen.
“Israelsson had decent numbers at Northern Michigan,” Hastings said. “He wanted an opportunity to play. He’s mature. He’s played college hockey. He’s focused academically, and he’s up to competing.”
Israelsson played 21 career games for the Wildcats, going 5-7-2, including a 23-save, 4-1 victory over Minnesota State last November at Marquette. The Ytterby, Sweden, native had a .894 save percentage and a 2.88 goals-against average during his time at Northern Michigan.
“It’s early. (The competition is) wide open,” said Israelsson, who graduated from NMU with a degree in finance and risk management and is enrolled in MSU’s sports management master’s program. “You always have to earn it. It doesn’t matter what the coach says or what you think of yourself prior to going into it. … You know you have to prove it. Prove it to your coaches and each other that we’re good goalies. You have to prove it to the D-men and the forwards that whoever’s in the net has earned it.”
If Israelsson earns the starting job, the hope is he can replicate LaCouvee’s performance.
LaCouvee, who came to MSU after serving three seasons primarily as a backup at Boston University, was the WCHA’s goaltending champion with a 1.67 goals-against average in conference play. He also finished the season with a .915 save percentage and was named to the All-WCHA third team.
Israelsson will be competing with freshmen Dryden McKay and Jacob Berger. The Mavericks haven’t had a rookie truly win the No. 1 job since Cole Huggins played in 34 games in 2013-14, although Pawloski did start 17 games to Huggins’ 26 two seasons later.
McKay played the last two seasons with the United States Hockey League’s Madison Capitols, and no goalie in that junior league saw more shots over that time.
He faced a league-leading 1,672 shots last season, 258 more than anyone else, and finished the season with a .907 save percentage. In 2016-17, he saw 1,235 shots, third-most in the USHL, and stopped 91.7 percent.
“Dryden had to carry the load in Madison for multiple years,” Hastings said. “He played an awful lot of games at that level and was busy doing it. He faced a lot of shots. The experience is there to be a starting goaltender.”
Berger, a Minnetonka native, spent two seasons with the Merritt Centennials of the British Columbia Hockey League and had a .910 save percentage in 74 games over that span.
“When you’re competing as an athlete all you ask is for an opportunity to compete for ice time, and they’re doing that right now,” Hastings said. “It started before we got on the ice. … All of them have had the opportunity to be starters. There’s going to be daily competition.”