LEWISTON – Carsen Chubak was away from hockey so long that even his coach forgot how good he could be.
Chubak never wavered, though. No matter where he was the last two years – in the doctor’s office after knee and hip surgeries, in the gym during rehab or in the stands watching four other guys take over Niagara University’s net – Chubak held firm in the belief that he could be a world-class goaltender.
He’s proving it. The junior leads the NCAA in goals-against average (0.99), save percentage (.970) and shutouts (five) in a spellbinding return to the ice.
“I really always had this vision in mind,” Chubak said Wednesday. “My last two years have been disappointing, to say the least. To have this right now and the way our team is playing right now is awesome.”
The Purple Eagles have ridden their attention-grabbing goalie to a top-20 ranking. They are 8-2-3 heading into a pair of home games against Sacred Heart this weekend. Chubak is 8-1-3 in his first real action since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in November 2010.
“He was our No. 1 goalie as a freshman until he got hurt,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “I forgot that. People forget that. That was two years ago.
“This [success] doesn’t come as a surprise. I think the big surprise of the whole story is him persevering through the last two years.”
It has indeed been a long road to the top of college hockey for Chubak. The 23-year-old from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, played nine games as a freshman before injuring his knee. Nine months into his rehab, Chubak needed surgery for a hip ailment.
He struggled through an early season loss at Michigan in 2011-12 and never touched the ice again.
“Last year was just horrible,” Chubak said before practice in Dwyer Arena. “I mean, we had [senior Chris] Noonan who was playing well, which was great for us and great for the team, but it was difficult for myself to watch. I was in the stands a lot. I wasn’t even dressing very much, so it was really disappointing, really tough.
“Rehabbing both of those injuries last year was just a grind, then this summer was kind of nice because I didn’t have to rehab really. I could just kind of focus on getting better again.”
With his health back, Chubak is able to display the skills that have made him a winner at every stage in his career. The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder is quick, athletic and reads plays well. He has technical knowledge, but he blends various styles together in an all-out effort to keep pucks from the net.
“He’s unorthodox, but he’s a battler,” Drew Schoneck, who coached Chubak in Tri-City of the United States Hockey League, said by phone. “He never gave up on a puck. There’s spots where you thought, ‘Oh god, what are you doing?’ and he still managed to get a toe or a stick or a piece of his blocker to make a save. I think that’s what really separates good goaltenders.”
“He is so athletic that he’ll come up with that [Dominik] Hasek-like save where everyone in the building is in shock,” Burkholder added. “Because he’s not blessed with that 6-2, 6-3 frame, he’s at the top of the crease and uses athleticism and quickness, and his rebound control is phenomenal. I’m amazed in practice at how good this kid is.”
After winning a championship in midgets in 2008-09 in the British Columbia Hockey League, Chubak joined the USHL. He backstopped Tri-City to a 29-25-6 record after it went 11-48-1 the previous season. He led the league in saves, recording 108 more than the second-place goalie.
“For lack of a better word, we were the Bad News Bears,” Schoneck said. “We were kind of a ragtag bunch and Carsen faced a lot of rubber some nights. He stood tall.”
The experience got Niagara’s attention. The Purple Eagles were focused on two USHL netminders, so then-assistant coach Greg Gardner made a weekend trip to watch both play. Gardner told Burkholder that Chubak was their man.
Gardner, who starred in goal for Niagara before a six-year pro career, spent a lot of time watching games with Chubak while the netminder rehabbed his knee. They analyzed goalies to see what worked.
“I don’t really consider myself similar to anybody,” Chubak said. “A lot of goaltending schools teach one way to do things, and I don’t really believe in that. I believe in whatever you feel comfortable doing. That’s what I’ve really been trying to do this year. If you feel comfortable doing it and that’s what I feel will keep the puck out of the net, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Folks in the colleges and pros have taken notice. Chubak has been named Atlantic Hockey Goalie of the Week five times so far. The number of NHL representatives at Niagara’s games has increased, and so has their frequency.
“It’s been a very busy time for Carsen because you’re starting to get family advisers and NHL scouts, NHL assistant GMs,” said Burkholder, who will go for his 200th career win Friday. “He needs to mentally stay focused, too, that this doesn’t get to him. He’s an older guy, junior tested, very mature, and none of this has gone to his head.
“But it would not surprise me if he continues this I think someone will be after him, and then it will be his decision if he wants to come back and graduate or not. Hopefully, he’s not thinking that.”
Chubak said he’s thinking only about this season. He wants to help Niagara win upcoming games against Bowling Green, Air Force and RIT so it can move up from No. 20 in the rankings.
Chubak’s dream, though, is to play pro. He’s had it since he was 13. He came home from a youth-league game, sat down on the family steps and decided hockey would be his life.
The dream carried him through the previous two years of struggles. This season, he’s doing what he can to turn his self-analysis on the stairs into reality.
“Whenever I don’t want to go to the gym or something, I just think about that moment and it’s good motivation,” Chubak said. “It’s nice to get recognized, especially after the last two years. ... This is where I feel comfortable.”