Opportunity in hand, Niagara goalie Carsen Chubak is thriving
by Alan Lessels/Correspondent
As hockey goaltenders go, Carsen Chubak figures, he’s not the superstitious type.
“I’d say I’m probably one of the least superstitious goalies I know,” the Niagara University junior said.
He has, it should be noted, pretty much trained himself to go without water during a game.
“Maybe the most superstitious thing I do is I have no water bottle on my net,” Chubak said. “I won’t get a drink from there during the game. I don’t feel I need to. And the bottle is something for shooters to shoot at. They like to hit the water bottle and knock it off. Maybe if they don’t see it, they won’t know what to aim for.”
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Chubak admitted that he hasn’t run his theory by shooters. “But it seems to be working,” he said with a laugh. “We won’t be changing it right now, that’s for sure.”
He likely won’t be changing much of anything. Who knows? Goalies across Atlantic Hockey, and perhaps in hockey everywhere, may soon be following his lead and going bottle-less.
It’s surely not all about the bottle, but whatever he’s doing certainly worked for Chubak in the opening two months of the season. Backstopping a veteran defense, he’d led Niagara to a 10-2-3 overall record and 9-0-0 mark in Atlantic Hockey through early December.
“He’s the real deal,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “I haven’t seen anything like he’s been doing in a lot of years. He’s just been in one of those zones. He’s locked in. It’s his reflexes, his quickness; he’s playing at the top of his crease. It’s his game management. He’s getting whistles and making timely saves. He’s carried the team to this point in the season.”
The numbers have been eye-opening. Through Thanksgiving, he led the nation in save percentage at .970, in goals-against average at 0.99 and in shutouts with five.
In Niagara’s first six league games in November, he had four shutouts and allowed a single goal in each of the other two games. The Purple Eagles outscored their opponents 22-2 in that stretch.
“It’s going real well,” Chubak said. “We had high expectations for this season and we’ve been meeting them so far, that’s for sure.”
The goalie has been a major reason why. “Coach said everyone was going to get a shot at the job,” Chubak said. “I was able to get in games and run with it.”
Chubak’s start was especially impressive considering that he had seen very little game action in almost two years. His road to leading the Purple Eagles started two years ago, back when he was a freshman. Chubak had just won Niagara’s starting goaltender job when he blew out his knee in a game at Dwyer Arena.
“November 23, we were playing Colgate at home on a Tuesday night,” Chubak said. “My skate got caught and a guy fell on me funny. I had knee reconstruction surgery two weeks later.”
Over the summer, Burkholder said, Chubak had to have minor hip surgery, too, and there was some concern among the medical staff that he might not be able to play again. As a result, Burkholder and his staff brought in another goalie recruit.
Chubak kept rehabilitating and, by the time the 2011-12 season started, he declared that he was ready to play.
Only he wasn’t.
Chubak got the start in the season opener at Michigan and played two periods. That was it. He was pulled after giving up five goals.
“That was a very disappointing ride back home,” Chubak said. “A long six or seven hours thinking about it on the bus ride back.”
Chubak got back to his rehabilitation, and his knee starred feeling better and better. But by then, senior Chris Noonan had grabbed the starting job and was playing extremely well.
“That eased the pain on Carsen mentally, I think,” Burkholder said. “He started feeling better but did not have the pressure to play. Chris was on a run so no one else was going to play, so he had a full semester to train.”
Burkholder told Chubak and backups Cody Campbell, a junior, and Colby Drost, a sophomore, that the job was open for this season.
Chubak grabbed it. “There was some bad timing and some bad things happened, but it showed me how much I want to play hockey and it brought me back with a fire,” he said.
Burkholder raves about the goaltender’s approach. “His compete level is off the charts,” the coach said. “He’s here every morning in between class work, working by himself. He has a power skating routine and a cardio routine, and then he shows up at 2 for practice. He’s our hardest working player and there’s that old adage: You get what you deserve. He’s a pretty focused and disciplined young man.”
The defensive group — led by guys like junior Kevin Ryan (Eden, N.Y.) and senior Dan Weiss — is mature and playing well, too.
“It’s a real good defensive core,” Burkholder said. “They’re willing to block shots and clear the front of the net. They’ve done a real good job of not letting them get second and third shots.”
The front lines are deep and different players have been contributing each night, Burkholder said. Senior Giancarlo Iuorio and junior Ryan Murphy are among the leaders, and sophomore Michael Benedict (Eden, N.Y.), who had two goals last season, had five by Thanksgiving.
It’s been Chubak, though, who’s been the talk of the team through the first two months.
He was recruited to Niagara by assistant coach Greg Gardner, a Purple Eagles goalie great whose records he is now chasing and sometimes catching. Gardner is now an assistant at Princeton, and he and Chubak stay in touch.
Chubak calls himself a “scrambler” in the net. “I can be technical,” he said. “But I’m not as technical as a lot of goalies. I’m not a robot out there, that’s for sure. I can definitely scramble and feel very confident in situations like that. I think I read the play well and have good rebound control for the most part.”
After some of the rough times over the past couple of years, he said his knee feels unbelievable.
“The statistics don’t hurt that,” he said, and laughed. “When you’re winning, it doesn’t hurt as much.”
When you’re making a bunch of saves, it seems, you don’t get all that thirsty during a game, either.
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New York Hockey Journal.