Devon Maloof had just played perhaps his best game of last winter’s hockey season as the goalie for Franklin High. And he was immediately told he would be the backup from there on out.
It was early March, and the 5-foot-5 Maloof had done his job, probably one of the hardest in sports, in a 3-2 win over Xaverian with the number one playoff seed on the line. Stopping pucks in crunch time is the equivalent of a quarterback successfully leading the two-minute offense. To prove that he could do it here should pave the way for more, with the playoffs ready to begin the very next day.
But before Franklin would play its first tournament game, coach Chris Spillane sat Maloof down to relay the bad news: He would be on the bench, while fellow sophomore goalie Mike Donadio would be the starter.
It felt like a dagger: Nice game, kid, now grab a clipboard.
“When I talked to my coach, it was more of the size thing,” Maloof said, referring to the 5-foot-9 Donadio’s height.
Spillane had “told me we were really even,” Maloof said. “He basically said it came down to size, nothing more than that. Neither of us outplayed the other. We played equal. He just said he was comfortable’’ with having the taller goalie in the net.
Spillane would have been comfortable with either goalie. But, with a coaching strategy that has become as trendy as carrying a smartphone, he had been rotating goalies all season.
Donadio would lead the Panthers to a Division 2 South title and another trip to the TD Garden, where Maloof watched from the bench as Franklin fell to Wilmington, 3-2.
“It was tough at first, wishing you could be in there, getting to the Garden knowing you’re not the one in net,” Maloof said. “It’s a hard thing. But to watch a team become successful and seeing everyone happy is still awesome.”
Maloof’s response could not please a coach more. It is the end result one pictures when using the rotating-goalie system over the entire season.
This winter, Spillane is doing it again. His two goalies are now juniors, a year older and a year smarter, giving Franklin hope for a better result in March, a month in which they have lost two straight state title games on Massachusetts high school hockey’s biggest stage.
“I’m not going to award anyone the number one or number two,” Spillane said. “We basically tell them, you’re both the starter.”
The idea is simple: Two is better than one.
And Spillane is not the only one doing it.
“I think what’s happened in the sport of hockey is there’s a lot of pressure on the goalies,” said Arlington Catholic coach Dan Shine, who is rotating senior goalies Shawn Ray and Bryan Hunt, Shine’s nephew. “With our schedule, there’s a lot put on them when they’re playing every game, every night. I think we’ve all realized that might be a little much to expect one guy to carry you, unless you have what we would say is an exceptional goalie.”
It’s supply and demand, really. With the increased level of participation in junior and prep school hockey, the premium, “blue-chip” goaltenders are scarce at the high school level. It is the hardest position to fill every year, and it might be the most important.
“I think overall, there are more good goalies,” Shine said, pointing out the difference between good goalies and the rare great ones. “As a result, there’s a lot of emphasis put on goaltending today that there wasn’t years ago. There’s a lot better coaching. And it’s created a situation where there are more goalies.
“Maybe some of the blue-chippers leave, but the backups aren’t really backups any more. They are kids that can play.”
Each additional mouth to feed also makes each slice of the pie a little bit smaller.
And with a position that relies on rhythm and consistency, it’s fair to wonder how difficult that is to maintain when a hot streak might be rewarded with a seat on the bench. A cold streak will most certainly end that way.
“It gets stressful, but you have to have that mentality where you can’t let that get in your head,” said Maloof, who would like to play college hockey, but acknowledged that it would be more difficult to get recruited out of a two-goalie system. “It’s absolutely the hardest part when things aren’t going your way.”
The good can outweigh the bad, as many coaches have started to believe.
The goalies have more rest, which both Maloof and Donadio say is a substantial benefit when their legs feel a bit wobbly on days after games. There is also more competition, which in turn makes practices more intense and can benefit the entire team, from the defense to the forwards.
And it gives everyone a safety net. If one falters, another is ready to go.
Even if that means sitting on the bench in the biggest of games.
“It gets frustrating, but it’s good, healthy competition,” Donadio said. “It makes us better goalies. I’d rather take a win over him screwing up. I’m always happy for him, and I’m sure he’s happy for me.”
Kustra makes the difference for Natick
It helps to have your best player on the ice, as Natick coach Karl Infanger quickly found out this year.
Since senior captain Matt Kustra returned to the Redhawks, they have gone 2-1, including a pair of 3-1 wins over Bay State Conference rivals Needham and Framingham. Kustra had two goals and four assists in the two wins.
“He makes a big difference,” said Infanger. “We just couldn’t get anything going, couldn’t find the back of the net.”
The good, the bad
Before the Ed Burns Holiday Classic, set to begin Wednesday, Arlington Catholic has played just one game this season, a 5-2 win over Central Catholic that proved the Cougars might return to the Super 8 postseason conversation this winter. . . The Needham High boys’ hockey team is off to an 0-4 start for the first time in recent memory, surprising many area coaches. The Rockets have scored four goals while allowing 14.