Hawks' veteran goalie matures throughout career

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JON HOUSE - Mac Carruth has put together a strong season in goal for the Portland Winterhawks, setting records and helping the team post the best record in the Western Hockey League.He has tuned out the noise and kept the mind right, and Portland Winterhawks goaltender Mac Carruth has enjoyed his final season in the Western Hockey League.

It could be the 20-year-old Carruth’s best season, as he has posted seven shutouts and eclipsed many franchise records for the league-leading Hawks. He has been steady and stellar on the ice — playing too well to allow young stud Brendan Burke more time in net — and, more importantly, steady in the head.

You see, Carruth has displayed a bit of a temper and been a tad too hard on himself in previous years. He has paid attention to opposing fans and, when he hasn’t played well, even hometown fans have given him flak.

As the WHL playoffs approach, Carruth can confidently say he has matured.

“I’ve stepped up and become professional, I guess you can say,” says Carruth, a Chicago Blackhawks-signed player who, because of a glut of goalies in the Blackhawks’ organization, had to be sent back to juniors. “I’ve had a few hiccups here and there, but as an athlete, you’re going to have them.”

Portland head coach Travis Green once told Carruth that he was the most self-critical person on the team. Carruth took it to heart, and went one step further, and started not listening to critical fans — “some fans who don’t really know the game adding on that (self-criticism),” he says.

“It’s just kind of frustrating because you can’t say anything back to them. ... I’m way more relaxed, realizing it’s just a game. Fans chirp at you. It’s not that big of a deal.”

In his fourth season, Carruth has elevated his play, and entered weekend play with a 2.06 goals-against-average (second in the WHL), .929 save percentage and a 30-7-0-2 record. His career numbers have placed him among the elite goalies in Portland franchise history.

The 6-3, 180-pound Carruth became the Hawks all-time leader in victories (117) and shutouts (11) and ranked second in games played (176). When Carruth led Portland to victory against Prince George on Jan. 9, he surpassed Darrell May, Sr. as the all-time wins leader among Winterhawks goalies. May attended the game and congratulated him.

Carruth had 42 wins last season, a franchise high for a season, and already holds the Portland records for playoff wins (33), games (54), saves (1,744) and minutes (3,193). With 12 playoff games, he’ll set the WHL record for most played (Cam Ward, Red Deer, 2001 to ‘04).

The Shorewood, Minn., native takes the records, including the shutouts, in stride.

“I’m more proud of the wins column as a squad,” he says. “That’s what gets us banners at the end of the year.”

Franchise records are an indication of longevity, and if the NHL hadn’t suffered through a lockout this season, chances are Carruth would have been playing in the Blackhawks’ minor-league system. He says the organization had five goalies for too few minor-league spots, and he still had junior eligibility, so he went back to juniors. More time with the Hawks allowed Carruth to make his mark in the record book.

He thanks Mike Johnston, the suspended Hawks general manager and coach, for giving him the opportunity to play for the team in the 2009-10 season and “I’m thankful they kept me around all these years.”

The 17-year-old Burke, son of former NHL goalie Sean Burke, has sat patiently as Carruth plays out his junior career. But Burke, during his NHL draft eligible season, has been solid as a backstop himself with a 2.61 GAA, .909 save percentage, four shutouts and a 21-5-1-0 record.

“He’s having a great year,” Burke says, of Carruth. “He wanted to be at the next level this year; he’s good enough to (be there). But with the lockout and everything and how the season started, it wasn’t in the cards for him.

“You can take that two ways — you can come back and pout, think you’re too good to play here and really not improve at all, or you can come back and work hard and try to have a good last year in juniors. I think he’s taken the positive route.”

Burke has noticed that Carruth has been less volatile, which has steadied his approach and play. Carruth simply got a year older, and he has played like an experienced overage player.

“Every year you grow, especially at this level,” Burke says. “It’s not like the NHL. This is a developmental league, and every year people grow. Everybody knows he’s a fiery guy, and sometimes he can lose his temper. Especially this year he’s been really good in control of it.”

Carruth admits that once he was sent back to junior hockey he was starting to think about the WHL playoffs. After all, thanks in large part to Carruth, the Hawks have played in the past two WHL finals. Not reaching the Memorial Cup this year — the Hawks have been ranked No. 1 or close to the top in junior hockey all season — would be a disappointment. It has made his final year with the Hawks more enjoyable.

Burke, 6-3 and 175 pounds, hopes to be drafted in June, and then it’ll be his job as starting netminder on what could be another strong Hawks team next season.

Carruth has been impressed.

“He’s gotten a lot stronger, physically and mentally, and more confident,” Carruth says. “Obviously, he’s a student of the game. And, that’ll be huge for him later.”

Burke has been happy to earn four shutouts and more than 20 wins in his second year in the WHL, and he credits teammates for helping him attain success.

“We had more star power last year, but overall we’re a better squad this year in a lot of different areas,” he says. “Makes my job a lot easier.”

He expects to be Carruth’s backup throughout the playoffs, but, as he points out, “playoffs are crazy, and you have to stay ready.”

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