University of Denver goalie Sam Brittain got an early Thanksgiving feast over the weekend, gobbling up a combined 66 shots to lead the Pioneers to a win and a tie against Air Force.
More importantly, the 2010 fourth-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers looks to have regained his confidence and dominance on the ice after a turbulent two years that first saw the Calgary native suffer an ACL/meniscus injury and then a year later lose his starting job to Juho Olkinuora.
There was no question that Brittain would get a chance to prove he had what it takes to dominate at the collegiate level after Olkinuora signed as a free agent with the Winnipeg Jets following last season. However, even if Olkinuora stayed at Denver it may not have mattered as Brittain is seeing and stopping the puck better than ever before.
Brittain has led Denver to a 7-5-2 record and is one of the best goalies in the NCAA this year with a Division I-leading 378 saves in 13 games. He has put together a 7-4-2 record, is tied for the most shutouts in the nation (three), has posted a .945 save percentage and has a 1.66 goals-against average.
After making 31 saves – including a clutch kick save on Ben Carey with under 20 seconds remaining – in a 3-3 tie against Air Force on Friday night, Brittain said it has been good to regain his confidence this season after losing his starting position last year.
“It was tough last year, but everything is a learning experience,” Brittain said. “I did what I needed to do over the summer and compete at this level and be one of the elite goalies. That’s what I am striving for every day to give our team a chance.”
Brittain posted a 5-7 record in 14 games in 2012-13 with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.
“No real excuse,” Brittain said. “Juho played really well and had been getting the majority of the games. It’s been a bit of an eye opener for me, and I had to figure out where my game needed to get improvements on and I did that this summer.
“It has paid off so far.”
With a new coach in Jim Montgomery and his senior season coming upon him, Brittain spent the offseason working on some of the things he felt cost him playing time as a junior. He focused primarily on improving his puck trapping skills, vision and athleticism. At times, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound goaltender had a habit of dropping to the ice blindly – something he also wanted to work on heading into this year.
“I think I am more patient so I don’t have to scramble as much and that means I am not out of position and don’t have to try to be quick,” Brittain said. “I can just use my body and size to help me. It is always tough to measure quickness, but being a little bit more flexible is only going to help me this year.”
Montgomery, who noted Brittain came into camp in tremendous physical shape, says that his goaltender’s strong presence in net allows the DU forwards to jump into the offensive rush and take more chances. Brittain has also been a safety net for the team’s three freshmen defensemen.
“It gives me confidence out there and makes me able to make plays because I know he has my back out there,” Butcher said. “A lot of the times he has had my back, especially (Friday).”
“He is a great leader on the team,” Butcher added. “As a freshman myself, I can take a lot from him being a senior.”
If Brittain can master his athleticism and vision, he certainly has the size of an elite professional goaltender. An even greater asset has been Brittain’s maturity and mental ability to rebound from all he has gone through in the past two years.
Brittain was one of the most dominant young goaltenders in the nation three years ago when he went 19-9-5 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 2010-11. He would be named to the All-WCHA, College Hockey News, Inside College Hockey and USCHO.com All Rookie Teams.
However, in the WCHA Final Five championship game against the University of North Dakota – a 3-2 double overtime loss – he took a shot to his left knee and knew something was a little wrong but didn’t think much of it. He would even go on to start the Pioneer’s next two games in the NCAA Tournament a week later against Western Michigan and North Dakota.
But then in the offseason his knee continued to get worse and it was eventually determined he had to undergo surgery on his left ACL and meniscus. The procedure cost Brittain the first 25 games of his sophomore campaign – opening a roster spot for Olkinuora to leave Finland for Denver – before he came back to play in 12 games, including one against Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA Final Five semifinals in which he made a career-high 67 saves.
It seemed safe to say last year the net was going to be Brittain’s, but Olkinuora eventually won the majority of the playing time and Brittain was relegated to backup duty.
Those two scenarios tested Brittain both mentally and physically and he showed the perseverance to overcome both challenges.
“Well, one is physical is one is mental,” he said. “Getting back from that injury was a physical battle, making sure to stay positive every day. Last year, I felt like I was playing well but wasn’t getting the chance to get in there. It was more mental and staying positive and making sure you were being a good presence around the team.”
A psychology major, Brittain said he even began to realize the things he was learning in the classroom were helping his on-ice development. The former Canmore Eagle of the Alberta Junior Hockey League has taken a variety of sports psychology classes that have taught him a thing or two.
“The more classes I take, and the more I do, the better I feel about what we’re doing in school and how it translates to the ice,” Brittain said. “It’s actually interesting because you would never think that would help, but it does.”
But the biggest lesson of all so far in his time at DU came from the hardships he overcame on the ice.
“Everyone is going to have their ups and downs,” Brittain concluded. “If you are living in the past and upset about everything then you are never going to be able to move forward and improve yourself. The biggest thing is you have to stay positive.”
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