The Rochester Grizzlies had the best goalie in the North American 3 Hockey League last year.
Yet, Mathias Backstrom -- who was named the NA3HL Goalie of the Year last March -- played in only half of the Grizzlies' games in 2019-20.
That's because the Grizzlies coaching staff knew two things: 1) Backstrom likely wouldn't be back in 2020-21, so they needed to groom a replacement, and 2) the two guys who were battling with Backstrom for playing time were talented enough to carry the load in goal if needed.
That philosophy is paying off already this season for the Grizzlies, who take a 4-0-0 record into tonight's game, Friday, Oct. 30, against Milwaukee at the Rochester Recreation Center.
Shane Soderwall, one of those two guys who played behind Backstrom last season, is ready to take over as the team's No. 1 starter. But the Grizzlies once again have two other netminders who won't cede the net to Soderwall easily.
Soderwall has started two of the team's four games so far, going 2-0-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage, having allowed three goals on 46 shots faced. Rochester had to postpone four consecutive games over the past three weeks due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the team, but it was able to get back on the ice to practice this week, and to play its home-and-home series with Milwaukee this weekend. The teams meet again Saturday night at 7:30 in Milwaukee.
"We've been blessed with good goaltending again this year," Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. "It's tough on us as coaches to make that decision as to who starts, but on the other hand it's good because on any night we can put any of them in and they'll give us a chance to win."
That was the same feeling the Grizzlies had last season when they went 37-8-2 and won their first NA3HL Central Division championship. Backstrom, who is a freshman at Division III Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., was fourth in the league last year in wins (18), third in goals-against average (1.55), second in save percentage (.939) and fifth in shutouts (4).
He was pushed by Sean Guerin -- who started this season with Wichita Falls (Texas) of the NAHL and now backstops the NA3HL's Mid-Cities Stars (Euless, Texas) -- and Soderwall, who also put up outstanding numbers, going 11-1-1 with a 1.76 GAA and a .920 save percentage.
But Soderwall is now the one in the driver's seat who is being pushed. Owatonna native Zach Wiese and Warroad native Zach Foster both won their only starts of the season so far. Wiese stopped 21 of 22 shots in a 3-1 win at St. Louis on Oct. 2, while Foster made 24 stops on 26 shots a week later as the Grizzlies beat St. Louis 4-2 in Rochester.
"Wiese was a lineman in football at Owatonna and that's how he trained for five years," Ratzloff said. "We knew when he started to train specifically for hockey that he'd be good because he's such an athlete. He's worked really hard in the offseason, lost a lot of weight and got more into a hockey body.
"(Foster), we didn't really know him until we saw him at a pre-draft camp in Hudson (Wis.). He's a scrappy boy, a northern Minnesota guy. He competes hard."
SAFE AT HOME
The Grizzlies have turned the Rochester Rec Center into one of the toughest buildings to play in in the NA3HL.
Since the franchise began play in the league in the 2018-19 season, Rochester has an .830 winning percentage at home, a record of 39-8-1. Including this season's 2-0 start at the Rec Center, the Grizzlies are 23-1-1 at home since the start of the 2019-20 season.
"Playing at home (today) helps," Ratzloff said. "We've established that we don't lose here. That's something we really focus on and the guys understand. When we were down against St. Louis in both games here a couple weeks ago, that was the message -- 'we don't lose at home' -- and it's good that we play here in our first game back (from quarantine) so we can establish that again."