TEMPE, Ariz. -- It may be the single hardest thing to do in the ACHA this season.
Over the course of 1,126 minutes of action—19 games worth—it has happened just 21 times.
That's it. Twenty one.
When a goal is scored on Arizona State freshman goaltender Robert Levin, it's something of an event. During his dynamic debut season, the Illinois native surrendered just 21 goals to the opposition, while stopping the 460 other shots fired his way.
In what is possibly the single best goaltending season in ASU history, Levin led the ACHA in goals against average (1.12), save percentage (.956), and shutouts (six, including three straight). Simply put, those numbers are just absurd.
"I knew he was going to be really good, and I knew that he was going to be the future of the program from a goaltending standpoint," said ASU head coach Greg Powers. "But never in a million years did I expect him to come in and put up video game numbers, and that’s what he’s done. He’s a wall."
When Levin came to ASU after playing in the Eastern Junior Hockey League with the South Shore Kings, he wasn't sure what was in store for him from the ACHA level of play. He was just happy to be a part of one of the nation's elite programs.
“I didn’t know what to expect," Levin said. "I knew that it was a great program that Coach Powers had built, and I was excited to be a part of it. I just want to do whatever I can do, and it’s been a great first year.”
It may seem hard to believe now, but at first, extended playing time wasn't a guarantee due to a crowded depth chart.
Levin joined a Sun Devil program that returned one of the nation's best goaltenders in senior Joe D'Elia, a player who already has a national championship on his resume. But as he proved himself, including three shutouts in his first four career starts, it became impossible to deny the net to Levin.
Such was Levin's success that, in a year in which D'Elia posted a career-best 1.80 goals against average, the freshman made more starts (19 to 15) and played more minutes (1,126 to 900) than the veteran.
Often times, two talented players vying for one job can cause problems, but that was not the case with Levin and D'Elia.
“It was great to come in and be with an established guy like Joe," Levin said. "He had a great year last year and has been great this year. I’ve learned from him and his work ethic, and his experience in the league going into Nationals is great. For me, it’s great to have a guy like that."
"They pushed each other back and forth, and they were a great tandem all year," Powers said.
Levin is quick to credit his teammates for his success.
“The first thing is how our team has played," said Levin. "Defense first. All the guys in front of me do a great job clearing out the front of the net and making my job easy. That’s the biggest key.”
While his spot as the last line of defense on the nation's most talented team is a big factor, Levin is a very talented goaltender in his own right.
On the ice, the 6-foot-1 Levin has good frame for the position, and combines that size with excellent fundamentals that often makes difficult saves look easy. That doesn't happen by accident.
"What’s nice about Robert is that he’s easily our hardest working player," Powers said. "He shows up to practice, and every day he outworks everybody. It’s contagious. From Day One, our guys have really learned to respect and buy in to how Robert approaches his game and every practice."
That work ethic is something that has long been a part of Levin's game, dating back to a time when he didn't have size on his side.
“I’ve always been a hard worker. Starting in high school, I was one of the little guys, like 5-foot-3, but I grew and started working really hard. I worked over the summer with a goalie coach. I just have to battle and work for what I have. I think that’s probably my greatest strength.”
Now comes the year's biggest and most important challenge: the ACHA National Tournament.
ASU enters this week's tournament as the No. 1 seed and the odds on favorite to take home the first national championship in program history. With their first game looming this Friday, there are two burning questions face the Sun Devils. Who will the team play in the opener (the winner of Rhode Island vs. Lindenwood), and who will start in goal for ASU?
With two terrific options from which to choose, it's hard for Powers to go wrong. Neither he nor the team has released which goalie would get the call, but barring a meltdown, whoever Powers tabs for Friday's opener will be the guy for the duration.
“In a tournament, I don’t think going back and forth is the way to go about it," Powers said. "I have a good idea of who I will start. I would envision, unless we win that first game in a dogfight 7-6 and the guy in net doesn’t play well, that’d be the only situation where I’d make a change. If you're winning in a single elimination tournament, and your goalie is playing well, there’s no need to make a switch.”
For his part, Levin thinks that whoever is chosen will get the win. "Whoever goes in, everyone is confident that we’re going to win as a team.”
While some coaches may be hesitant to put a freshman in during the most pressure-packed games of the year, Powers has no such reservations about Levin.
“He’s been in some pretty dicey and intense situations all year," Powers said. "I’m not concerned about that at all. He’s mentally ready for this moment, and I have no doubt that he can perform in it.”
“It’s definitely an intense situation, single-game elimination, but after juniors and prep school, I’ve been in situations like it," Levin said. "We’ve had some tough situations in overtime this year. I’m ready for it, and I know everyone on the team is.”
Levin says that he and his teammates are all in a good frame of mind, relaxed and ready to go out and bring home the title. Their gameplan contains no surprises.
“We’ve been successful at all of the little things all year," Levin said. "Cleaning up our own zone, being responsible, staying out of the box.
"If we do that and take one game at a time, I like our chances.”