By Chaz Scoggins
LOWELL -- Twenty years ago, the kind of season Doug Carr had as a freshman for the UMass Lowell hockey team last winter would have classified him as an elite college goaltender.
Carr's 3.63 goals against average was identical to All-American and Hobey Baker finalist Dwayne Roloson's career average for the River Hawks from 1990-94, and Carr's .896 save percentage was better than the .888 career percentage posted by Roloson, who has gone on to a long career in the NHL.
But college hockey is no longer as free-wheeling as it was a generation ago when the best teams averaged more than five goals a game. Better coaching, video, and bigger and better (shooters would argue unfair) equipment have made goalies a lot tougher to beat.
So all a Roloson-type season meant for Carr was that he was in open competition with two other UML goalies for playing time in September when he arrived on campus for his sophomore year. There was a new head coach in Norm Bazin and a whole new coaching staff, and the River Hawks were coming off a 5-25-4 campaign, the worst in their Division I history.
Everybody, including Carr, had to prove himself all over again.
Bazin opened the season with Brian Robbins, a freshman goalie he'd recruited, and Robbins and Carr split the first four games.
But when Robbins faltered in a game against top-ranked Boston College, Carr seized the job, and he shows no signs of relinquishing it. Right now he ranks with the elite goalies in Division I, third in the nation with a 1.89 GA average with two shutouts and a .930 save percentage.
Carr is in a position to challenge Cam McCormick's 2001-02 school record for lowest GA average of 1.88 and Carter Hutton's 2009-10 school record for highest save percentage of .928.
"So far it's been Dougie," said Bazin. "He's played well and been pretty consistent in a very difficult position to be consistent in, and we hope that continues in the second half.
"He's impressed me with his demeanor. He's calm and gives the team that same poise. He's a big presence in his crease, takes up a lot of room, and gives you a chance to win hockey games."
The 6-1, 195-pound Carr won eight straight games after taking over as the No. 1 goalie and is 11-2-0 for the River Hawks, who are 12-5-0 overall and ranked 10th in the country this week in the USA Today poll. He was Hockey East's Goaltender of the Month in November and is the top-ranked goalie in the league.
So how does someone with so-so stats as a freshman and battling for playing time at the start of his sophomore season suddenly find himself among the top goalies in the country?
Just being healthy has a lot to do with it.
Two years ago, Carr was the Goaltender of the Year in Ontario's Central Junior A Hockey League, fashioning a 27-6-1 record with a 2.50 GA average and .919 percentage. But as that year wore on, Carr, who had already committed to UML, knew one of his hips was wearing out.
He had a torn labrum, a common injury for goalies, and he knew he was going to need surgery to fix the problem. He had picked UML because both Hutton and Nevin Hamilton were graduating and the River Hawks' goaltending job was his for the taking.
"But we played until May 10, and with the door wide open here I didn't want to get surgery in the summer because it's a six- or seven-month recovery," Carr explained. "It would have been Christmas before I was ready.
"I wanted to do what I could to get through the year and stay as healthy as possible, but I knew I needed to get this done eventually. I got it done right away at the end of (last) season so I'd be healthy this year."
While he was the steadiest goalie the River Hawks had last winter, recording four of their five wins, he knew he could play a lot better.
"It was kind of frustrating," he recalled. "I tried not to tell myself that if not for my hip I would have stopped that shot. There were times when it felt worse. I had to miss a few games after Christmas."
Because of the surgery, which included shaving the hip bone, Carr had to shelve his usual off-season routine, and he knew he was going to have to impress Bazin and UML's new staff when he got back to school.
"This summer I was still off the skates, and I was well behind," he said. "The strength and the speed weren't there. It took a little while to get back into it."
He credited Bazin, assistant coaches Cam Ellsworth and Jason Lammers, director of sports performance Devan McConnell, and trainer Artie Poitras with working diligently to get him into shape in time for the start of the season.
Carr grew up in Hanover, where his family was close friends with the Nobles, whose son Tom backstopped Boston University to the NCAA Championship in 1995. Tom took young Doug under his wing.
After spending his freshman year at BC High, Carr transferred to Hanover High but played junior hockey in the Empire League for the next two years. Not until his senior year did he play for Hanover, and he anchored the team to the Division 2 state title in 2007.
An excellent student and a business major who made Hockey East's All-Academic Team last year, Carr then had a tough decision to make: Should he go right to college, or should he play some more junior hockey in hopes of furthering that career?
"Coming out of high school I could have gone to a (Division III) NESCAC school: Middlebury, Bowdoin, Hobart -- all academically challenging schools," he said. "But at the end of the day I wanted to play hockey at the highest level I could."
After two years in the Eastern Junior League and another with the Cornwall Colts in the CJHL, Division I college recruiters were calling.
"I was talking to a lot of schools, but I wanted Hockey East," he said. "BU was one of my favorite teams because of Tommy. But we're a hockey family and went to Hockey East games all the time, and I knew that when I got older and the time came, I wanted to play in Hockey East.
"Being a goalie, it's tough to get a spot anywhere in the league, so I had no preconceived notions where I wanted to be."
The choice came down to UMass Amherst or UMass Lowell. Carr knew the River Hawks were losing both their goalies, while Paul Dainton still had another year at UMass Amherst.
"I went to Amherst one Saturday in November and Lowell the next Saturday," he said, "and when I got to Lowell I committed on the spot."
Now he puts UML opponents on the spot.