Monday, September 7, 2015

Evolution of a goaltender--Cal Petersen

Reprinted with permission from

How do you follow up an 87-save performance in a 5OT loss to begin a playoff series?

Get the win in the next one, then proceed to shut out the opposition, in this case the Massachusetts Minutemen, in the third game to take the three-game series.

Sabres goalie prospect Cal Petersen, like everyone at the Copley Center, home of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, was spent at the end of the opening game of their first round 2015 Hockey East tilt. The Irish and the Minutemen just had played the equivalent of 2 1/2 games in their NCAA D-1-record 151:42 minute slugfest. Although Notre Dame would be on the wrong end of a 4-3 game which eventually concluded at 1:24AM, they would win Game-2 less than 20 hrs. later with Petersen in the crease once again. His ability to shake off the loss and bounce back in the second game of a set was somewhat of a hallmark for him once he became entrenched in the starter's role as a freshman. 

Petersen seemed to pass through a threshold back in a game back in February and with the Irish down 4-0 against Maine. Petersen was summoned to relieve sophomore goalie, Chad Katunar, with whom he'd been sharing the crease with. He started the third period, the team rallied and sent the game to overtime before salvaging a 4-4 tie. The next night Petersen stopped 33 of 34 Black Bears' shots and lead the Irish to a 5-1 victory. The following weekend he earned the split with eventual NCAA Champs, Providence, before facing off against another Hockey East powerhouse in Boston University. They skated to a 2-2 tie on Friday and Notre Dame won the Saturday game 3-2.

Boston College was up the following next and, once again, the Irish dropped the first game (2-0) but came back to win the second one 3-1. Then came the epic 87-save loss vs. Maine and a win the following night.

When I asked Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson if Petersen forgets easily, something that allowed him to come back with wins on Saturday's, he said it was something he'd talked to the freshman goalie about and spent a lot of time on. Jackson, a former goalie himself, said, "That was my real focal point with [Petersen] in the second half of the season. I would talk to him after each game and would try to get his mind starting fresh each night." It's safe to say that eight goals allowed on 154 shots against (.948 sv.%) in the second game of the two-game sets to finish the season and into the playoffs would constitute "starting fresh."

"For whatever reason, it was kind of a trend that we came out a little slower Friday night than Saturday night," Petersen told me, "I think it was more of getting comfortable with the style and speed that each team possesses as well as their best players and putting that to use on Saturday."

Petersen put that Friday experience to good use against Boston U. and Boston College, two teams who threw tons of rubber his way.  In the Saturday game at BU featuring eventual Hobey Baker winner and fellow Sabres prospect, Jack Eichel, Petersen faced 46 shots and allowed only two goals. The next weekend vs. Boston College he faced 56 shots on Saturday allowing only one goal.

Facing that many shots bodes well for a goalie like Petersen who has an "ultra compete-level," but there were games when he faced only a couple dozen shots and wasn't as focused and that's where the coach says he needs to stay sharp and come up with a win. "Most of those games when we were playing top teams in the country we were giving up 40-50 shots a games," said Jackson. "We had a very young team so were giving up a lot of shots. That's where [Petersen] thrives. I still insist the biggest thing for him is to find a way to allow only one goal instead of two or three in the games he's facing only 20 or so shots.

"I think that's a maturity thing, it's a focus thing."

That "maturity thing" for goaltenders takes time. It's a lonely path for a goalie, one that's fraught with perils along the way. Of all the positions in a team sport like hockey it's the one that is the most individualized. When I talked to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute head coach Seth Appert, another former goaltender, about his goalie, Jason Kasdorf, he also stressed the mental aspect of a lonely position. "You're back there with your own thoughts and your own demons at times," said Appert, "and the more you can control your mindset and just focusing on the next save, the better off you'll usually be."

Controlling those "demons" is the next big thing in Petersen's development, according to Irish coach Jackson. Whereas he worked on starting fresh game to game, there will be more focus upon starting fresh within the game and the ability to bounce back after a bad goal or after a tough period to turn things around.

Kris Baker of, called it "hitting the reset button."

"Because that position is so mental," said Baker, "it's not so much about the save you make, it's about the goals you let in and how you react to the goals you let in. Your composure. And it tells a big story about the outcome of the game."

Downshifting while staying sharp and casting out those demons on slower nights might be a tad more difficult for a player like Petersen who's compete-level, said Appert, "is off the charts." The same ultra competitiveness he displays while facing a multitude of shots or to follow up a loss with a win may get him to think too much about the goal that he just let in. It's something that might be traced to his hockey roots in Waterloo, Iowa.

"When Cal Petersen’s school day ended in sixth grade, he didn’t head home like many of his classmates," began Mark J. Burns' article on Petersen for USA Hockey Magazine. "Rather, he had a three-hour drive ahead of him. And that was just one way."

Cal Petersen had just won the Dave Petersen (no relation) Goaltender of the year Award in 2014 as the best goalie in USA junior hockey. Burns' piece in May, 2014 briefly touches on Petersen's early travels to hockey rinks in Wisconsin where "eating, naps and studying all took place on the road" and where his parents sacrifice fell "outside the norm" of the usual long-distance drives. His parents, wrote Burns, "stipulated that they were not going to commit time, money and energy unless he was fully committed to the game."

And he made it count. "Living in Iowa I kinda had to make my own opportunities. It wasn't like I had a rink anywhere nearby," he said. "So every time I got the opportunity it was engrained in me to not let one slip away and that transferred onto the ice."

What followed those long rides to Wisconsin from Iowa was a three-year career with his hometown Waterloo Blackhawks of the U.S. Hockey League and the goalie of the year award before heading to Notre Dame as a freshman last season. In committing to Notre Dame, he'd be headed to a school where coach Jackson is held in the highest regard and he'd also facing competition in one of the best, if not the best, conferences in D-1 hockey.

Having a coach like Jackson with nearly 30 years behind the bench and three NCAA Championships (one as an assistant coach) helped Petersen get off to a good start in South Bend despite the large number of freshmen skating in front of him. "Petersen came into a great situation as a freshman," said Baker, "it's a real good team, defensive system. One of the keys of coach Jackson typically is that he coaches defense and his teams are always real sound that way."

As with any goalie, however, the toughest battles he might be facing are within him, especially a for a thinker and self-described, student of the game. He knows it too. "Goaltending is such an individual position that it's easy to get in your own head," said Petersen, "and me being ultra competitive I kind of look to my self whenever we get scored upon as something where I could've done better. I've worked on letting myself go a little bit and worry about how I can get better after the game."

Kinda reminiscent of another cerebral, American-born goalie who took the college route and was selected by the Sabres in the fifth round. "Yeah. I have heard of him," said Petersen with a chuckle when I asked him if he knew of Ryan Miller. "He was an idol growing up. I followed him kind of closely when he was with the Sabres. I had a couple of posters of him in my room.

"He was definitely a source of inspiration."

Petersen will probably be facing a lot of rubber again this season as the Irish will be icing 15 underclassmen. Physically he came into South Bend 15 lbs. heavier than last year with the same body fat and he likes his playing weight. He also spent the summer working on his skating and technique, among other things saying that he could probably "go on and on about the things I love to work on, need to work on," but that consistency will be one of the biggest areas to focus upon this coming season.

"I think it's every goalies mission to have the least [number] of bad games as possible," he said. "I want to be more consistent game-to-game. I had a good streak of that towards the end of the year but I want to be able to piece that together for the whole year.

"The biggest thing for me is to continue to be a rock out there and work on my consistency from game to game."

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