It’s rare for a freshman to stand out in his first year of college hockey. It’s even rarer for a freshman to flourish in net, but Adam Wilcox and Stephon Williams are doing just that.
The two freshman goaltenders will battle this weekend when Wilcox’s No. 1 Gophers and Williams’ No. 14 Mavericks, from Minnesota State-Mankato, conclude their regular season series with two home-and-home contests.
The goalies split a similar series earlier this season, with both teams winning at home.
Wilcox ranks first in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in goals-against average and winning percentage and fifth in save percentage. Williams is second in GAA, fourth in winning percentage and fourth in save percentage. They’re the only freshmen in the top five of each category.
The Wilcox file
Facing Michigan Tech on a Friday in the second weekend series of the year, Wilcox replaced Michael Shibrowski, who had given up four goals in a little more than one period of work.
Wilcox hasn’t looked back since.
The South St. Paul, Minn., native started the next 21 games for the Gophers. His season record is 16-2-4, which includes big wins over then-No. 1 Boston College, then-No. 2 Notre Dame and rival North Dakota.
“I’ve been confident, and that’s definitely helped my play a lot,” Wilcox said. “The past couple games there’s been a few bad bounces, but that happens, especially in the middle of the year.”
Some of that confidence comes from the Gophers’ solid defensive unit, which prevents many shots from getting to him. Throughout the season, Wilcox has given a lot of credit for his success to Minnesota’s defensemen.
Defenseman Nate Schmidt said the players know that if they lapse, Wilcox will have their back.
“You know the kid’s a gamer, you know he’s going to give you his best shot,” Schmidt said of Wilcox earlier in the season.
The biggest question about Wilcox this season has been whether his stamina would hold up after playing so many games. That question doesn’t seem to bother head coach Don Lucia.
“The week off [after the Mankato series] will be good for him,” Lucia said. “There’s times in practice that we have talked to him about staying out of the net for a while.”
Lately, Lucia has given Wilcox a day off from practice throughout the week to keep the goalie fresh.
“I don’t like to skip practice or anything like that, but if [Lucia] feels I need rest, then I do whatever he wants to do with me,” Wilcox said.
Lucia said he might play Shibrowski somewhere in the final stretch of the season, but he said there’s no official plan. If Wilcox plays the rest of the way, the Tampa Bay Lightning draftee would likely benefit from it.
“For goalies, it gets you into a rhythm,” Wilcox said of playing consistently.
Wilcox played in the United States Hockey League for two years before he arrived on campus. He said that experience has helped with his stamina this season.
“It would have been a tough jump to come right from high school,” Wilcox said. “So playing two years of juniors definitely made a night-and-day difference.”
The Williams file
Where Wilcox used his defense to get comfortable with college hockey, Williams used a winning streak.
“I’ve definitely gained a lot of confidence with our team having success,” Williams said.
After starting the season 0-2-1, Williams led the Mavericks to a sweep of Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. Since then, Mankato has gone 10-3-2 with Williams in net.
“He’s been spectacular since he’s taken over,” Lucia said of Williams’ play.
Though the winning streak has helped his confidence, Williams, like Wilcox, gave a lot of credit to his defensemen.
“When we went on that seven-game win streak, I think we gave up an average of 20 shots,” Williams said. “With defense like that in front of you, you start to feel more comfortable in net.”
Though he’s started 15 straight games, Williams doesn’t consider himself the No. 1 goalie on the Mavericks.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a day I’ve come to the rink … and knowingly known that I’m going to start,” Williams said. “Me and Phil [Cook] push each other every day in practice, and we’re both very hard competitors.”
Cook, a senior, started both games against the Gophers earlier this season. He has a 3-2-1 record.
Williams is also a veteran of the USHL and played two seasons in the league before attending Mankato. He said that working with the defense in early-season practices helped the transition, but he said it wasn’t seamless.
“Going from one level and then going to the next level up is always going to be a challenge,” Williams said.
Like Wilcox, he said playing in the USHL has improved his stamina.