Montoya's game stands between U.S. and its goal

Originally Published: December 31, 2004
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- A year ago, Al Montoya was just another American hockey player tending goal at the World Junior Championship.

Since then, Montoya led Team USA to its first gold medal at the World Junior Championship, had his life story told and re-told a dozen ways, led the University of Michigan to an NCAA Tournament appearance, became the first Cuban-American player drafted into the NHL and had a sandwich named for him at New York's world-famous Carnegie Deli.

Whew!

However, the dreamlike quality of Montoya's life over the past year has been brought into stark reality in recent days by a nightmarish turn at this year's World Junior Championship.

In running the table at last year's tournament in Helsinki, Montoya was superlative, turning in a .944 save percentage and 1.33 goals-against average. He was named the tournament's top goaltender and helped put the national junior program on the sporting map.

QUARTERFINALS
United States (2-2) vs. Sweden (2-2)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks
The Americans thought they wouldn't have to play this game after starting the tournament 2-0. They will have to put any feelings of disappointment out of their minds if they're to advance to Sunday's semifinal against Russia.

Although they'll be without offensive sparkplug Chris Bourque, lost for the tournament with a knee injury sustained in a 5-3 loss to Belarus on Wednesday, the Americans have the superior firepower, at least on paper. The problem for the U.S. in consecutive losses to Belarus and the Czech Republic hasn't been generating scoring chances, it's been finishing them.

Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Dan Fritsche, who scored the lone goal in Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Czechs which placed the Americans in this game, will be counted on heavily, as will three-time tournament participant Patrick O'Sullivan, who has scored just once in four games and is minus-4.

Drew Stafford, who toils for the hometown University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, has been the Americans' best player and leads the team with five points.

The Swedes earned the second seed in Pool B by virtue of their goal differential. They are led by Pittsburgh Penguin prospect left-winger Johannes Salmonsson, whose five goals put him tied for second among tournament scorers. Salmonsson and St. Louis Blues draft pick Carl Soderberg have eight of the Swedes' 14 goals.

A strong start by the Americans will go a long way to securing victory.

Provided Al Montoya can replicate his heroics of a year ago, when the Americans won their first gold medal at the World Junior Championship, the Americans should also have the edge in goaltending. Sweden will rely on Christopher Heino-Lindberg, who turned in a 4.14 goals against in three preliminary-round games.

The Swedes haven't won a medal at this tournament since 1996 and are often reminded of the junior program's failings by media at home.

-- Scott Burnside
Through four games in this year's tournament, Montoya has a 3.39 GAA and 9.00 save percentage. More perplexing has been his propensity for giving up bad goals.

Canadian television hockey analyst and former NHL coach Pierre McGuire blasted Montoya after Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Czech Republic. The winning goal was a long slap shot that beat Montoya through the five-hole.

"You can see he's very uncomfortable in goal. His fundamentals aren't anywhere near where they were a year ago," McGuire told ESPN.com on Friday as the Americans prepared for a sudden-death quarterfinal match against Sweden on Saturday evening (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). "He's a big goalie who looks small right now. Pucks are going right through him."

There are both possible explanations for Montoya's uneven play and hints that he's on the verge of playing his best game of the tournament.

Montoya is not alone in failing to replicate dominating performances. Other top goalies have found it difficult to repeat at the World Junior Championship, especially after they've been selected in the NHL draft. Finnish netminder Kari Lehtonen, an Atlanta Thrashers goalie now considered the top prospect in the minors, and Canadian Marc-Andre Fleury, who was taken first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003, both struggled in their return to the World Junior stage.

Some scouts and analysts believe it's focus, the notion that once players have succeeded at this level they need to face greater hockey challenges.

There was serious discussion that Montoya would forgo the balance of his college career after the Rangers had chosen him sixth overall last June. But after contract negotiations didn't pan out, Montoya returned to Ann Arbor for his junior season. Though he has compiled an 11-4-1 record and left the Wolverines in first place of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, his 2.41 GAA and .901 save percentage are off his standards of a year ago, when he posted numbers of 2.23 and .917.

Montoya, whose mother fled Fidel Castro's Cuba to raise her family on her own in the Chicago area, said he has no regrets about returning to school but acknowledged the last year has meant adjusting to newfound attention, even if he hasn't really had a chance to sit and reflect on the seminal changes to his life.

"You definitely have to accept it. It comes with the territory. You have to know how to respond to it," Montoya told ESPN.com on Friday. "Everything goes by so fast. You don't really have time to look back on it. You just try and take it in stride and keep moving forward."

Montoya's mother, Irene Silva, is the only family member who was able to travel to Grand Forks for the tournament. Montoya said he still relies on her for strength and encouragement.

"It's a huge part of me. Her competitiveness and her intensity rubbed off on me quite a bit," he said.

Thoughtful and approachable, Montoya is well aware that he has not lived up to expectations of fans, the media or himself.

"During the game I let it go, but I find I'm my biggest critic," the 6-foot-2 netminder said. "I don't dwell on it, but I'm true to myself and let myself know what I'm doing right or what I'm doing wrong.

"I haven't changed anything in my approach (technically) or anything," he said.

If there are signs that Montoya is positioned to deliver the kind of game-saving performance expected of him, it's been his play in the third period of both losses. Montoya made several key saves Thursday night to keep the Americans within one goal of the Czechs (they scored an empty-net goal to seal a 3-1 win) and was likewise strong after giving up a goal from outside the blue line against Belarus on Wednesday night.

"We know he can steal a game at any time," said Team USA and Michigan teammate T.J. Hensick. "He's one of our leaders, especially when we're down."

Even McGuire tempered his criticism, conceding that Montoya is a quality goaltender who still has the wherewithal to take his team to the gold medal game.

"He could certainly come back and get them there," McGuire said.

To defend its gold medal successfully, Team USA, which dropped from first to third in Group A, must win three straight games. Lose to Sweden in the quarterfinals Saturday and the tournament will be over.

"It's like a new tournament within a tournament," Montoya said. "We're excited. We have a chance, we have a chance to get somewhere."

That chance, Montoya understands, begins with him.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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