The goalie is the last line of defense in hockey.
The entire game can shift based on the performance of the man between the pipes. Most schools are lucky if they have one elite goalie.
ASU has two.
Senior Joe D’Elia and freshmen Robert Levin both rank in the top five in the ACHA in save percentage and goals allowed average. The pair has combined for a .963 save percentage and have allowed only eight goals in 10 games played. Levin also has three shutouts.
Coach Greg Powers said he enjoys the bonus of having two goalies who can start and win on any given night.
“It’s such a luxury that I’m not used to having,” Powers said. “Those two guys, their numbers are incredible. They’re supportive of each other, and that’s all I can ask for right now.”
D’Elia won a national championship in the 2010-11 season with Davenport. He transferred to ASU for the 2011-12 season and was the backup to Mark Schacker. Last year, D’Elia was the starter, going 26-5 with a 2.38 goals allowed average, and led the Sun Devils to a final four appearance in the national championships.
After all that success, D’Elia is sharing the spotlight with Levin this year.
Levin came to ASU from the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. There, he compiled a 19-14 record with a 2.64 goals allowed average and .913 save percentage. He also had two shutouts and took his team to the playoffs.
Now, he is at ASU as a top recruit, and is in a daily battle with the incumbent D’Elia for the starting spot.
If you think Levin’s arrival and the competition for starter has caused any animosity between the two, think again.
Levin said the two are roommates on road trips and when Levin turned in his first career shutout on Sept. 27 against Weber State, D’Elia was the first person on the ice to congratulate him, smiling from ear to ear.
D’Elia said he even enjoys having that battle for the starter’s spot with Levin.
“When I first came here, I asked (Powers) to bring in some competition,” D’Elia said. “It’s always good to have someone that’s nipping at your heels. It just makes you better.”
Levin agreed. He had his choice of many schools and opted to come here knowing full well that D’Elia was a two-year starter in the program.
“It’s nice to have someone in there you know you can trust and you both want each other to succeed,” Levin said.
Powers said D’Elia has taken on the role of mentor to Levin and the team’s third goalie, freshman Lucas Felbel. He said it was essential to recruit two young goalies, so they could learn under D’Elia.
“(D’Elia) is going to teach these young guys what it’s like to win at this level,” Powers said. “Just his approach to the game and how he goes about his business on a daily basis, these guys can learn from him, and I know they both are.”
Levin said he enjoys having D’Elia as a guide of sorts, both on and off the ice.
“Day-to-day hockey or even the college life, if I have any questions or anything, I can just go to him and ask him,” Levin said. “He helps a lot and (he’s) very reassuring.”
An issue could arise later in the season, though. Imagine the scenario: ASU makes the national tournament and advances to the finals. Who starts the do-or-die game that would be for the national title?
Even Powers said he doesn’t know.
“The only thing I do know is that if we played in the national championship game tomorrow, no matter who I started, the other guy would support that guy in net.” Powers said. “And to me, that’s what matters most.”
Another thing Powers said he knows is how much better D’Elia has been with Levin right behind him.
The stats support it.
D’Elia has bettered his goals allowed average and save percentage tremendously from last season to this one. Though D’Elia and Levin played against several Division II teams early in the season to pad their stats, both have beaten ranked Division I teams this year.
Powers said the decision of who starts on any given night has not been that difficult for him. He has essentially been alternating the two and said because it is working, he does not see that strategy changing.
Because this is D’Elia’s fourth year in the ACHA and third with ASU, he has seen (and beaten) most of the teams ASU will play this season on multiple occasions.
D’Elia started the season opener, as well the first games of the season against UA and Central Oklahoma, because he is familiar with those teams, Powers said.
On the last trip, Levin started against Oklahoma on Thursday to save D’Elia for Friday against Central Oklahoma.
“His experience is big, and he’s a very cerebral goalie as well,” Powers said of D’Elia. “He studies other teams. He knows what he’s up against, and that makes me comfortable throwing him in against anybody.”
D’Elia has never lost to UA or Central Oklahoma.
Powers was a goalie when he played at ASU. Since he took over as head coach in 2010, no ASU starting goalie has posted a save percentage lower than .910, and only once has a starter posted a goals allowed average over 3.00.
D’Elia has two targets in mind this year. He wants to help bring ASU its first national championship, and he wants to help foster a tradition of stellar Sun Devil goaltenders, starting by mentoring Levin and Felbel.
“I’m just trying to show them the right way and trying to lead by example,” D’Elia said. “Hopefully they follow and they can build a culture, at least with the goalies, that will live on forever.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @J15Emerson