Matt Vautour: Alex Wakaluk has played himself back into UMass’ goalie mix



Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2016

AMHERST

Most other players would have transferred. Or quit.

Alex Wakaluk stayed.

In his situation many goalies would have left because a netminder who has lost the confidence of his coaches almost never bounces back.

One bad performance can cause a loss. Continued bad goaltending causes the rest of the roster to develop bad habits as everyone starts to make decisions to limit shots faced by a goalie they don’t believe in. It’s why it’s so hard for a coach to let a goalie he doesn’t trust play even one game and nearly impossible to let him see enough action to play his way out of a slump.

Wakaluk, now a junior, looked destined to be a career practice goalie, having appeared to have played himself out of chances. The former most valuable player of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League was a forgotten man for the UMass hockey team for most of the last two-and-a-half seasons. Not only did he have two goalies in front of him on the depth chart, but both were younger than him. The possibility of Wakaluk playing a key role seemed remote at best.

But as the Minutemen get set for the season’s stretch run, Wakaluk is the hottest goalie on the roster and has earned himself a chance to keep playing.

There were high hopes when he arrived. He was a late signee to a program desperate for consistency in net. While the SJHL isn’t as highly regarded as some of Canada’s Tier II (college eligible) junior leagues, an MVP goalie always looks like a recruit to get excited for.

But in his debut, he gave up six goals in two periods against Maine and two weeks later allowed five goals in 22 minutes, 46 seconds to New Hampshire. He played one more game as a rookie, three months later in relief of Steve Mastalerz in a 5-3 loss.

His chances further diminished in 2014-15. The sophomore came in for seven minutes of scoreless action in a 7-1 rout of AIC, but he then gave up three goals and made three saves in relief of an 11-1 loss to Vermont. In that game he was third Minuteman goalie to play and most of the fans in the Mullins Center were long gone before he took the ice.

This year appeared to be following a similar path. UMass had high hopes that either sophomore Henry Dill or freshman Nic Renyard would evolve into a No. 1 goalie and the other would be a capable backup.

Wakaluk remained a popular player in the locker room among his teammates, and a diligent worker in practice and in the classroom where he’s earned Hockey East academic honors each of the last two seasons. Despite being a smallish goalie at 5-foot-9, he worked on “playing bigger” and maximizing his angles. But he had played just once in the 2015 part of the 2015-16 season, allowing two goals in 28:33 of mop-up duty in a 7-1 loss at Boston College.

“I understand with a three-goalie system, it’s obviously very tough,” Wakaluk said. “One guy is likely going to be left out of the rotation. It’s something I understand. When I wasn’t playing I just tried to be a good teammates and stay the course.”

He admitted he wondered if he’d ever get another chance. But his improved practice play combined with Dill’s suspension for a violation of UMass’ student athlete code of conduct, earned Wakaluk the start in the exhibition game against the United States junior national team during its tuneup tour for the world junior championship in Finland.

UMass lost, 4-0, but Wakaluk was good. He made 35 saves and impressed the coaching staff enough to play him Jan. 2 at Army. In a 2-1 overtime win he stopped 22 shots and looked nothing like the goalie who struggled during his first two seasons.

A lot of his technical improvement came from extra work with goalie coach Matt Voity, while his mental improvement came largely from uncluttering his head.

“Obviously there’s a little bit of nerves after not playing for a significant amount of time,” said Wakaluk, whose father Darcy was an NHL goalie for parts of eight seasons. “My focus was on the simple things and trying to keep the game fun. As soon as I started having fun and not worrying about outcomes and just enjoying my time and battling out there, it came back quick.”

Wakaluk was good again Tuesday, making a career-high 35 saves in a 3-2 loss to Yale. His early brilliance kept the Minutemen in the game, allowing them to force overtime late against the 12th-ranked Bulldogs.

“I’m just trying to help my team out in any way I can,” said the Bellevue, Alberta, native after the Yale game. “You’re always trying to improve and look for ways to be better. After every save I’m that much more confident that I can make the next save.”

UMass coach John Micheletto saluted his goalie’s ability to weather the difficult stretches.

“To do the work in the offseason that he did and come back and win confidence of the coaching staff back and everybody else,” Micheletto said, “and to remain confident in his own abilities takes tremendous mental strength.”

On Saturday, the Minutemen (7-9-4, 2-4-4 Hockey East) will start the home stretch of their season when they host Boston University at 7 p.m. As has been the case with every game this season, UMass won’t publicly announce its starting goalie until a couple of hours before the opening faceoff. Renyard, who has started 13 of UMass’ 20 games, still figures to see regular time in goal. But with Dill suspended, Wakaluk has a prime opportunity to seize more playing time if he keeps playing well.

He’s trying to make the most of his newfound chance.

“I don’t regret the first two years of my career. I had a lot of fun with my teammates,” he said. “But every player wants to play and this has been enjoyable.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage


 


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