Justin Mrazek and Corey Milan have pushed each other in practices, battling for the chance to be Union’s No. 1 goalie this season.
While the competition has been intense, it has also been friendly. And there’s been one other benefit: Their play helped the Dutchmen achieve their highest finish ever in the ECAC Hockey standings.
Union, completing its 17th year as a Division I program, earned the fourth seed, and a first-round bye, in the ECACH tournament. The Dutchmen will host fifth-seeded Cornell in the best-of-three quarterfinals, beginning Friday at 7 p.m. at Messa Rink.
Union coach Nate Leaman has rotated starts with the senior Mrazek and the freshman Milan. It has been a successful strategy, particularly since the start of January. Over the last 18 games, the Dutchmen went 11-4-3, and finished 15-12-6. Their ECACH record was 10-7-5. They won their first seven games of January, a team record for longest winning streak.
“Both of us want to do our part for the team,” Milan said. “It’s a good system to push each other. It’s worked out well. We’ve obviously had some success with it. We both feel very comfortable with it.”
Their statistics are very similar. Mrazek, a draft pick of the Washington Capitals, is 9-5 with a 2.41 goals-against average, which is fifth in the league overall statistics, and ranks sixth overall with a .913 save percentage and one shutout.
Milan is 6-7-6 with a 2.50 GAA (eighth overall), a .909 save percentage (10th overall) and one shutout. Milan’s 2.33 GAA in league play was fifth best.
“[The rotation] works because, first of all, Corey’s a great goaltender,” Mrazek said. “I feel like it pushes both of us to get better. Obviously, I feel like both of us feel like we can be in there, and feel comfortable being in there. Knowing that we have two goals that can push each other in practice and get better and better, I feel like that’s one of the reasons why it works.”
The numbers they posted since the beginning of 2008 have been impressive.
Both played in 10 games. Milan had a 5-2-3 record with a 2.07 GAA and a .921 save percentage. He had a 32-save effort against Dartmouth on Feb. 9, posting his first career shutout in a 0-0 tie.
Mrazek posted a 6-2 record with a 2.35 GAA and a .914 save percentage. His best game came Feb. 23 against St. Lawrence. He made a career-high 46 saves in a 3-1 win.
“If Corey comes up with a big game Friday, or I do, I’m sure the other goaltender will want to respond by having a big game the next night,” Mrazek said. “It pushes us to get better, and it’s better for the team because it doesn’t give us any room to have off nights.”
Mrazek was in goal for both wins over Cornell. In a 2-1 win Jan. 12 at Messa, Mrazek made 17 saves, including one on a Doug Krantz right-point shot late in the game when he had a stick caught in his pad strap and had trouble staying on his feet. He followed that up with a 25-save effort in a 3-2 win at Lynah Rink on Feb. 15. That performance came a week after he was pulled from a start against Harvard, in which he allowed two soft goals on five shots.
Leaman is happy with how his goalies have handled the rotation.
“The bottom line is early in the year, we tried to go with the both guys in both games on the weekend, and it wasn’t real successful,” Leaman said. “[The rotation] has helped push Justin. Justin’s a very good, capable goaltender. Justin is a competitive kid. When put into competitive situations, it helps push his game to a better level.
“With Corey, it’s a situation where he’s a young guy. In the first half of the season, he probably wasn’t ready for the focus it took [to play] in two games. We haven’t tried him since the beginning of the season for back-to-back games.”
Although Mrazek played in both games against Cornell, Leaman hasn’t decided who will start Friday.
“After the weekend of scouting Cornell, we charted the five types of shots we wanted to give the goalies this week to be best prepared against Cornell,” Leaman said. “I’m going to see who does best with those five and go with that.”