Last year, the Gwinnett Gladiators lost in the ECHL Kelly Cup finals to the Alaska Aces. The loss was due in no small part to Alaska’s superior goaltending duo of Matt Underhill and Chris Beckford-Tseu (STL). In net for Gwinnett was Adam Berkhoel (BUF), whom Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle leaned on over Sean Fields because had previously won a national championship with Denver University.
This season, the Gladiators head into the playoffs as only the third seed in their division, compared to 2005-06’s first-place finish. But as everyone knows, goaltending wins championships, so much of the team’s hope rests on 24-year-old Dave Caruso. He’s a rookie, but so is his partner, 22-year-old Dan Turple. Both are under contract with the Atlanta Thrashers.
Caruso, playing his best hockey of the year, has won eight of his last 12 starts. Defenseman Jon Awe, who was part of last year’s finals team, was enthusiastic about how well Caruso has been playing.
"Coming down to the wire you want one of your goalies to step up and make big saves, and the last 10 games or so, that’s what he’s done," Awe said. "He’s made huge saves for us at times, and at times when we break down he picks us up. You need that going into the playoffs and we’re going to ride him as long as we can."
Coach Pyle, for his part, doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about goaltending. He treats it like something that can’t really be predicted, like ice conditions. Bring up goaltending, and he’ll very quickly change the subject back to the team in front of them.
And it’s always been this way. Gladiators General Manager Steve Chapman said that in 10 years of working together, he could only remember Pyle pulling his goalie one time. Pyle could remember twice, and recite the exact circumstances.
All in all, Pyle is very laissez-faire with his goaltenders, letting them do their thing. And so it’s not surprising that when Caruso wanted to reunite with his old goaltending coach halfway through the year, Pyle was receptive.
In early January when both goalies were going through a rough patch, Pyle tried to see if Thrashers assistant coach Steve Weeks, who works with all the goalies in the system during camps, could stop by the rink to work with Caruso and Turple. But even though the two teams often practice at the same facility, busy schedules didn’t allow it. Pyle also tried altering the playing rotation, going from switching off every other game to ‘play until you lose’ to try to provide a spark.
Enter Al Blevins, Caruso’s long-time goalie coach. Caruso had started working with Blevins around age 17, just after Blevins moved to the Atlanta area from Michigan to become the Operations Manager at The Cooler, a new facility in Alpharetta close to Caruso’s Roswell home. In those early days, The Cooler was Caruso’s second home, working in the pro shop, driving the Zamboni, and working as a counselor at summer camps.
Caruso went away to play junior hockey with the AJHL Boston Bulldogs after high school, and then to The Ohio State University, but returned on breaks and in the summer. It was during those times that he always trained with Blevins, sometimes twice a day.
The 46-year-old Blevins is now General Manager of the Duluth IceForum, where the Gladiators practice when their arena is not available (about a third of the time). It’s through this link that Chapman and Pyle built a relationship with Blevins as well.
Caruso was the catalyst in bringing Blevins into the picture with the team this season, though his account of how it happened showed that he didn’t want to be seen as pushy or presumptuous in doing so.
Pyle’s own recollection went like this. "One time we were over there and Crus had talked to Al and they were going to bring out this bar. Crus goes ‘You don’t mind if he does this, do you?’ I go, ‘No, I’m not a goalie coach.’ I tell them my thought process [as a former goal scorer], what I think. I said ‘If you want to work with Al, you can work with Al every single day.’ He runs the rink over there so they’ve got the ice time. I told them, ‘Whatever you guys need. If I can help, I’ll help.’
"Goalies? Cut the angle off and stop the puck – that’s all I want you to do," Pyle laughed. "I’d be an idiot if I tried to be a goalie coach. They’d be looking at me like ‘What are you talking about?’"
And so it began that Blevins began working with both Caruso and Turple, usually a couple times a week.
The bar Pyle referred to is a seven-foot long, three-inch diameter steel bar, shaped like a wide U with three-foot ends on it that bite into the ice when it’s laid down flat. Blevins positions it at all possible angles, and shoots pucks off it to create deflections for the goalies. Steel being harder than a player’s stick, the puck comes off quicker than a regular shot, so if a goalie can stop that, they should be able to stop the slower-moving puck in a game.
Turple, who Caruso says is always up for drills, likes using the bar so much that he bought one from Blevins for camps he works at during the summer in Canada. A sign of how integrated both the bar and Blevins have become — the bar is now housed in the electrical room off the Gladiators locker area so it can be used at the more frequent practices at the Arena.
Blevins described the breadth of the work he’s been doing with Caruso and Turple.
"We work a lot on foot speed, a lot on positional play. Getting your body in the right spot. Controlling your rebounds. We work on tracking a lot. We work on that all the time with Turple. I put a screen bag on their head, so they can’t see real good. And it forces them to track the puck from the stick to whatever part of the padding or gear. We may do 30 shots to each glove, with the screen bag on. Then we’ll pull the screen bag off and go another 30 shots each glove, and then work on upper and lower. We do a lot of different angle things."
Caruso described how his play was a bit off before bringing in Blevins and how much it’s helped his game. "I was kind of struggling a little bit, not feeling it," he said. "We got out there and worked on some stuff and it just felt good…He’s a really good guy. I can’t say enough about him. A really good coach too – not negative at all, you know? He’ll tell you how it is, but he’s extremely positive."
"I just tune him up," Blevins said.
Tune him up he has. Before the ECHL All-Star break at the end of January, Caruso had a .893 save percentage and 3.39 GAA. But from the beginning of February on, Caruso has posted a save percentage of .919 and goals against of 2.68. The difference has been stark, and has been accomplished despite seeing an average of two shots more per game.
Caruso said working with Blevins has been the biggest factor in his improvement, and also credits the team playing well in front of him. Other things he’s doing include "trying to be aggressive and using my skating ability, being at the top of my crease and playing my game.
"Goalie drills are kind of hard to come by during the season," he added. "Being able to do that stuff is really a plus and we’re just playing better. I’m confident and just going on a roll."
Getting tuned back up didn’t take long because Caruso and Blevins are such a good fit for each other. "We have a similar style, similar beliefs in goaltending," Caruso said. "We mesh pretty good."
In fact, they run goaltending camps together every summer, which hold about 15-20 aspiring goalies. They’ve done it for so many years that they are starting to see their tutees accomplish big things.
"One of the goalies, Austin Keiser, who came to our camp the first year is playing on the TPH Thunder team, it’s like the All-Star AAA out of the IceForum. They went to nationals and he won best goalie [16-under]," Caruso said proudly. Keiser will be going off to prep school this fall.
Blevins attends most of the Gladiators home games, and he and his wife sit with Caruso’s parents, who drive across town for most of the games as well.
With his family so close, the goaltender can come back for holidays like Thanksgiving. It also means that he has lots of support in the stands, typically five to eight people. He has a brother and a sister still in high school and another sister at University of West Georgia. His mom’s friends and his own friends fill out the crowd.
Caruso said that it’s comforting having the support, but laughed, "It’s a little bit annoying getting all the tickets every game.
"We get two tickets each and then I always have to ask guys to borrow their tickets if they’re not using them. My mom usually says ‘Get six tickets and if there’s any more [needed], I’ll buy them.’ She might buy more that I don’t know about."
One teammate who is a likely source of tickets is roommate Colton Fretter, who sounds like he owes Caruso a big thank you. Fretter broke his ankle back in February, and so Caruso has had to help his temporarily crippled friend. He even lent him his car for several weeks. Fretter couldn’t drive his own truck because it was a stick shift and he wasn’t allowed to put pressure on his left foot.
Fretter healing up lightens Caruso’s load, both on and off the ice. The goal scorer will give Caruso a better cushion to work with in net, and at home he’ll be able to help again with chores like groceries, unloading the dishwasher and taking out the trash – down three flights of stairs.
"Hopefully he gets back to full [strength] pretty soon," the burdened Caruso said a couple weeks ago, laughing.
Fretter, recently named ECHL Rookie of the Year, has scored four points in the two games since returning last weekend.
Both Caruso and Fretter will be looking for an NHL contract this summer, Fretter as an unrestricted free agent, and Caruso as a restricted free agent.
Caruso, at age 24, had to sign a one-year contract last summer with the Thrashers per the CBA. Even with top prospect Ondrej Pavelec turning pro out of the QMJHL, there should be room for Caruso in the system next year.
"You’ve just got to roll with it," he said regarding being at the end of his contract. "After last year at school when I had, I want to say, the best year ever, things turned out well. I’ve just got to take it – I know it’s pretty cliché (laughing) but – one day at a time. If you work hard, things will happen. If they don’t happen this year, just keep on working and maybe next year, maybe the year after, who knows."
Working hard isn’t just a throw away phrase for Caruso, it’s something he does consistently, and something Blevins commented on as well. He’s last one left in the locker room at the end of the night, still working out. And he’s often the last one off the ice at practice, getting every last shot in.
Self-awareness another of his assets, knowing himself and his game well enough to ask for Blevins’ help when he needed it. Pyle said Caruso has a good mental game overall. "Most things don’t get to him. He bounces back pretty well."
In typical Pyle fashion, when asked about his goaltending headed into the playoffs, he said, "My biggest concern isn’t really our goaltending. It’s us playing a defensive style of hockey."
In March, Pyle went to a two games each rotation. But Caruso played the last four games of the regular season, as the team critically needed points for a berth and positioning. It’s a preview of the playoffs, where he’s likely to play predominantly.
Caruso said he’s feeling good heading into the postseason. "I’m excited for it. I’ve never really experienced playoffs-playoffs. In midgets we had a weekend tournament, and then in juniors we didn’t really have playoffs. Then in college we only had three-game sets in the first round and then we went to the one-game elimination. It’s going to be different, but I’m pretty excited for the couple games because I always feel pretty good after a few games, after I get going."
The Gladiators begin the best-of-five South Division semifinals at home against the Texas Wildcatters on Saturday night.
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