Goalie Grant Friesen’s play at the net has been earning the Canadian native some attention for the junior tier III hockey team in Gillette.
After Friday night’s 3-0 shutout over the Billings (Mont.) Bulls, the entire team rallied around their keeper, giving the 19-year-old the adulation you’d expect a team’s top scorer to get.
But Friday’s home win — the team’s second shutout of the season — featured one of Friesen’s most dominant performances so far this season for the Wild.
He racked up 52 saves, his third highest total in that department this season. Several of the saves included fast-reaction stops fueled by quick wits and athleticism.
At one point midway through the third period, Friesen did the splits and dropped to his belly to prevent a shot that would have slid between his legs.
Bulls forward Colby Spoonemore skated aggressively toward Friesen on a breakaway play. Nobody would have blamed Friesen for giving up a goal.
Instead, his gusty play kept Billings off the scoreboard and merited “There Goes my Hero” by the Foo Fighters to blast over the loudspeakers. That was accompanied by a standing ovation from the Wild fans in attendance.
Even more impressive, the team was able to quiet Daniel Chang, the leading scorer in the American West Hockey League who has notched 15 goals.
But Friesen was just happy to come away with the win.
“I don’t really know what to say, I’m just glad we got two points,” he said.
Things haven’t always been so good for the goaltender, though.
Early in the season, Gillette had trouble keeping its opponents off the scoreboard. The team was outscored 38-18 in its first five games, which included a 12-1 loss to Helena, Mont., on Oct. 14.
Often times, goalies shoulder the blame for poor defensive performances. And while Friesen will take his share of responsibility, he doesn’t let the past affect his day-to-day performance.
“Normally, I do a pretty good job of shaking it off,” he said. “My responsibility is to just shake it off.”
Friesen’s been tending the net since he was age 9, but it wasn’t his choice.
“I was an awful skater,” he said. “I’m a good skater now, but I was really slow.”
His coach put him in the net and Friesen liked it there, so that’s where he stayed.
And while the season’s had its share of ups and downs, Friesen’s heated up in the last few weeks.
“Even at practice (Friesen) stands on his head,” defender Andrew Lillard said. “He gets frustrated when he lets goals go by.”
And while Friesen’s been keeping opponents’ points in check, it’s been the improved play of the Wild’s defenders that has helped him.
With more than a month of experience operating coach Tom Winkler’s scheme, the defense is settling in, which means staying out of Friesen’s line of sight.
It doesn’t hurt that the communication’s gotten better, either.
“Communication is one of the biggest things and even that’s picking up,” Lillard said. “There’s so much talking on the ice, it’s getting annoying.”
Keeping the opposition quiet is a key component to any team’s success. The season’s long and Gillette’s defense hasn’t always been reliable. But if Friesen keeps playing at this level and the defense keeps progressing, the Wild could become dangerous.
“(Friesen)’s been very good for the last three weeks,” said Winkler, who added that the team’s goalie situation was uncertain until recently. “I love the fact that our goals against us is going down.”
By: Jon Frank – News Record Sports Writter