First, there was the record for wins by a goaltender.
On Jan. 9, 2013, Blackhawks prospect Mac Carruth made 23 saves against the Prince George Cougars in front of 3,000 Portland Winterhawks fans at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. It would have been a pretty typical outing, except for two things: The 3-0 score gave Carruth his eighth career shutout, tying a team record, and the result went into the books as his 106th win, breaking a franchise mark that was set three decades ago.
Carruth felt no pressure leading up to that night, having already anticipated the occasion approaching long before.
“There wasn’t really a weight on anyone’s shoulders,” Carruth said. “It was something we all knew was going to eventually happen, just with how good our team is and how we were playing at that point in the year.”
The man whose benchmark he surpassed was Darrell May, who played for the Winterhawks from 1978-82. After being drafted by Vancouver in the fifth round in 1980, May played in the minors for seven years, appearing in six NHL games for the St. Louis Blues in the late ’80s. May’s professional career ended in 1989, and he returned to the site of his glory days, scouting for the Edmonton Ice and Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League before taking the reins as GM of the expansion-team Chilliwack Bruins.
These days, May travels around the minor leagues—including the WHL—as an amateur scout for the Blackhawks. In fact, May played a big part in Chicago drafting Carruth in 2010, so it’s fair to say that he's familiar with the player who supplanted him in Portland’s record books.
Back then, Carruth was athletic but still raw, a seventh-round project pick who was prone to letting his emotions run wild during games.
“Sometimes he gets so intense that it hampers him from being able to react naturally and play his best,” said Blackhawks Developmental Goaltending Coach Andrew Allen. “We’ve worked a lot on getting him to control his emotions during a game, and to not lose his edge, but to control his edge. This season, he’s a lot more consistent with that mental, emotional side to his game.”
Carruth’s game thrives on instincts, positioning and, yes, that same intensity that can function as a double-edged sword. Allen compares his boxy presence in the net to J.S. Giguere in his halcyon Anaheim days, and he has a Brodeur-esque approach to the puck-handling game—aggressive but effortless.
“He still needs to work on his reaction speed—with his hands, especially, with the quicker releases in the pro game,” Allen said. “Also, that mental game and that consistency—he’s gotten a lot better at it, but it’s something he’s going to need as he moves up, night in and night out. With the grind of a season, he needs to be at his best as much as possible.”
Local media had made mention of Carruth’s progress toward May’s benchmark last season, but it was never a sure thing because no one, not even Blackhawks Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley, knew last summer whether Carruth would be sent back to Portland for a fourth and final year.
“When Mac was assigned back there, then the conversation became a kidding-type thing with Darrell,” Kelley said. “It’s special for us at the Blackhawks, because Darrell was very instrumental in us drafting Mac.”
“I’d totally forgotten about the record, to be honest with you,” May said. “Somebody from the Portland organization phoned me the weekend before Mac set the record and asked if I’d be willing to come down.”
As it turned out, Portland was already on May’s scouting schedule, so in early January he drove down for the Winterhawks’ two-game homestand against Prince George.
“It was really neat,” May said. “Obviously it’s been a really long time since I played there, but on this night, there were a lot of people there that seemed to remember what I’d done, and it was nice to see Mac [break the record].”
After the game, May and Carruth met on the ice to take a photo with the historic game puck and reflect on the nature of such a record.
“This franchise has been around for a while,” Carruth said. “There have been a few Memorial Cup-winning teams, and we’re looking to do that this year as well. To have these records held by such a great organization is a great accomplishment, and I’m very honored.”
“It’s a record, but it’s really a record that reflects how good of a team you’re on,” May added. “You have to play on good teams to get that many wins.”
You also have to stick around long enough on those good teams, a rarity for goalies who are generally considered to be interchangeable at the junior level. Indeed, Portland’s goaltending records for games played and minutes played both belong to Kurtis Mucha, who started between the pipes from 2005-09 on squads that thrice scraped the bottom of the conference standings, and whose 135 career losses unsurprisingly constitute another team record.
And it’s Mucha and Lanny Ramage’s shutout record that Carruth tied that same night with his eighth career blanking, something he only found out when it was announced over the P.A. system after the wins record had already been knocked aside.
“I didn’t know going into the game,” Carruth said. “I knew I was close, but it was a good way to beat a record and tie one on the same night.”
Sixteen days later, that record was his alone, sealed in the span of 36 saves on the road against Spokane.
Goaltender history aside, the Winterhawks have a chance to match or better their franchise-best season record of 56-15-1, set in 1980-81, the season May won 28 games in 36 appearances. Portland sports a league-best 51-9-1-2 record as of Feb. 26, bolstered by a timely 14-game winning streak that was in part sparked by the heavy team sanctions handed down by the WHL for infractions of the player benefits system.
The sentence was announced on Nov. 28; 10 days later, the team started their rampage. Highlights included 6-2 and 5-0 wins over Seattle and an 8-0 blanking of the Everett Silvertips.
“The key thing is that everyone is working hard to stay in the lineup, and the coaching staff has really come through,” Carruth said. “With recent events, we’ve really come together as a team and used that as a rallying point.”
The squad is young and criminally talented; the roster boasts 10 rookies, including defenseman Seth Jones, a consensus top-two pick this summer. But it’s the veterans who have led Portland’s charge up the standings—players such as St. Louis prospect Ty Rattie, leading scorer Nicolas Petan (2013 draft eligible) and defenseman Troy Rutkowski, Portland’s captain and reigning iron man, who has been on the ice for every single one of Carruth’s wins.
Carruth has played his part, with a lofty 28-5-0-2 record, 1.96 goals-allowed average and .932 save percentage, all well on track to becoming career bests. He has shouldered a lighter workload this year (just 35 starts in 63 games), a well-deserved break after he played 85 games for Portland a season ago, although the absence of game time can take a different kind of toll on a starting goaltender.
“It’s a lot easier for a goalie to get in there, feel the rhythm and play almost every night,” Allen said. “You don’t have to think as much, and your body is much more in rhythm. I really feel it’s good for Mac, because he’ll transition into the pro game next year, where most likely he won’t play the 65, 70 games that he has in years past. It is difficult mentally for a goalie to not play every night, but he’s been handling it quite well, and it’s a very good learning experience for him.”
Carruth’s reduced starts can be attributed to the Winterhawks allotting extra time in net for 2013 draft-eligible goalie Brendan Burke, something Chicago was aware of when they sent Carruth back to Portland last autumn. It’s not that he wasn’t ready for the pro game; a three-year entry-level contract signed last May indicated that he was part of the Blackhawks’ plans, and a fine showing at Rockford’s training camp last September proved he was on the cusp.
“What we were looking for the most was for him to refine his game and to take a leadership role,” Kelley said.
Carruth responded by winning his first nine games of the 2012-13 campaign and recording no more than one regulation loss in each month of play through January. He currently ranks second in the league in GAA, save percentage and goals allowed, and paces the WHL in shutouts.
Surely the icing on top of his final season would be a WHL championship, something that has eluded Carruth like a puck that takes a funny bounce just outside the crease. Already with a couple of WHL top-five postseason mentions under his belt (including most saves in a playoff year, set in 2012), Carruth is fast approaching his fourth tour of the playoffs, and the Chynoweth Cup, along with an accompanying trip to the Memorial Cup tournament, has become the Holy Grail for a Winterhawks squad that has finished second-best in the league the last two seasons.
“To get that close to something and come up short two years in a row leaves a bitter taste in your mouth,” Carruth said. “Everyone asks about it in interviews, and you grit your teeth a little bit when you answer, so obviously it’s a personal goal, not just for me but for every guy on the team who’s been there before.”
Winning the biggest chalice in junior hockey would put an exclamation mark on his WHL career, one that could see a few more records etched in both Portland and the league’s books before it’s over. Carruth broke another single-season team record on Feb. 2 when he made 26 saves against Spokane for his sixth shutout of the season, and he could also set a single-season save percentage record by the end of the campaign. And if he stretches, he might just snag a top-five spot in WHL history for lowest single-season GAA.
Luck may need to play a part in reaching those records, but Carruth has already put himself in a prime position to succeed after he bids the City of Roses farewell. Goalie projections are notoriously tricky, especially at Carruth’s age, but Allen and Kelley say he has both the tools and the intangibles to make his way up the Blackhawks depth chart, which has been shallow in net in recent years.
“His work ethic, his compete level and his puck-handling abilities are really something that’s hard to teach,” Allen said. “If we can keep improving his game, and if he can keep maturing and developing, he definitely has the ability to become an NHL goaltender in the future.”
“In five years, we’d hope to see him with that Indian Head back on his chest,” Kelley added.
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