‘It’s the most important position on the ice.’ Why goalies can make or break an NCAA title bid

Boston, MA - {iptcmtonth}/22/2019 - (2nd quarter) Northeastern Huskies goaltender Cayden Primeau (31) turns away a bid by Boston University Terriers forward Ryan Cloonan (8) during the second period. Boston University vs. Northeastern Huskies in Hockey East semifinal game at TD Garden. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Sports, Reporter: John Powers, Topic: 23Hockey East, LOID: 8.5.772022147.
Barry Chin/Globe staff
Northeastern goaltender Cayden Primeau (31) blocks a shot by BU’s Ryan Cloonan (8) in a Hockey East semifinal.

Northeastern goalie Cayden Primeau was named the Most Valuable Player at the Hockey East tournament last weekend after making 38 saves in the Huskies’ 3-2 win over Boston College in the title game at TD Garden. In Lake Placid, N.Y., Harvard’s Michael Lackey was pulled halfway through the Crimson’s 5-2 loss to Clarkson in an ECAC semifinal. On the surface, it seems the goalie is the one player on a hockey team who can make or break a game.

But it’s not that simple. Sometimes a great goalie performance goes for naught if teammates can’t light up the scoreboard. Sometimes a goalie is pulled to shake up an underperforming team. And then sometimes a goalie can just outright steal a game.

As the NCAA hockey tournament opens Friday, the 16 teams will have many different formulas for getting the most out of their goaltenders.


Northeastern (27-10-1), which will face Cornell on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in Providence at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, has its ace in sophomore Primeau (25-9-1-4, 2.00 goals-against average, .936 save percentage).

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UMass (28-9-0) has relied on freshman Filip Lindberg (8-3-0-2, 1.67, .952) and sophomore Matt Murray (20-5-0-1, 2.11, .919) this season and won’t decide until after Thursday’s practice who will start in Friday’s 3 p.m. matchup against Harvard (19-10-3) in Manchester, N.H. The Crimson will decide between Lackey (14-7-3, 2.31, .918), a senior who played well until sidelined by a leg injury, and junior Cam Gornet (5-3-0, 2.56, .915), who stepped in and carried the team down the stretch.

Providence (22-11-6) will have Hayden Hawkey (22-11-5-7, 1.89, .919) in goal against Minnesota State on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

“It’s the most important position on the ice and has the biggest impact on the game,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said. “And it doesn’t necessarily mean that your goalie has to play incredible but you do need him to make the saves at key times in order to have success.”

Northeastern coach Jim Madigan said there are a few key components at tournament time. “You need goaltending, and you need special teams to be really good, and goaltending trumps everything,” he said. “Tournament play, they’re all close, one-goal games, usually low-scoring games . . . and goaltending is the difference.”


Providence coach Nate Leaman said he believes a goaltender can win a game.

“Absolutely. We’ve had that happen to us a couple of times this year where we’ve really outshot a team and given up very few shots and the goaltender has done a heck of a job,” Leaman said. “So, yeah . . . a goaltender can win a hockey game.”

For UMass coach Greg Carvel, it’s most important the goalie makes the routine saves, not the spectacular.

“With our team, we don’t ask our goalies just to win us games, we ask our goalies not to lose them,” Carvel said. “I think most games we’ve been able to out-chance our opponent so if our goaltenders are just making the standard saves and not letting any weak goals in, that’s all we need. Good teams have that luxury.

“I’ve been a coach on a team where a goaltender is your best player — you know what, there’s a lot at risk when that’s the situation. There’s a lot of reward, too, but as a coach I’m more comfortable knowing that I just need solid goaltending.”


Carvel said having two goalies works for his team because the competition drives each player to get better.

“It’s an equation that works for us,” Carvel said. “Ultimately we’ve got one kid who’s not happy about not being in net [each week] but then that makes him work harder the next week.”

There is one ingredient no goalie can be without: confidence.

“Obviously it’s a team sport and I think once you reach the playoffs everyone has to step up their game,” Harvard’s Lackey said. “But you’re not going to win games unless you have a guy back there who’s playing well consistently and the guys are confident in.”

Primeau, too, said confidence was the key and that it comes from the team in front of him. “All year the guys have just given me so much confidence,” he said. “We just try to feed off each other.

“Being that last line of defense, being the reason a team could win or lose . . . if you make a nice save the team is happy but if you let in a goal you’ve got a ton of fans screaming and they’re all unhappy. There’s two sides of it, that’s what really drives me.”

Tournament play can put extra pressure on goalies, who can’t avoid the spotlight. Most thrive in that situation.

And if you think chanting from opposing fans is going to bother Primeau, think again. He said he likes to sing along when the fans get on him, adding, “I wouldn’t be a goalie if it wasn’t fun.”

Barbara Matson can be reached at