Small name, big game: women’s ice hockey goalie guides Syracuse into postseason
Small name, big game: women's ice hockey goalie's impact on the ice
On the ice, millions of thoughts can race through the mind of a goaltender. As the only players that remain on the ice for the duration of the game, half the time away from the action, goalies must be ready at a moment’s notice to activate their explosive athleticism to push across the crease.
A clean loss on the faceoff, an untimely turnover or a one-timer can all force a netminder to react, almost instinctively, to six ounces of rubber hurtling towards them, sometimes in excess of 90 miles per hour. And goaltenders love it.
Good goaltending can make or break a team, and for the Syracuse women’s ice hockey team, success can hinge on the play of their senior goalie, Allison Small.
“Tonight the game boiled down to some timely scoring and great goaltending,” head coach Paul Flanagan said after the first of SU’s weekend series against Robert Morris. “RMU came at us with a lot of pressure in the last 10 minutes but we hung in there with some huge blocked shots and cleared the zones just enough for Allison to catch her breath and weather the storm.”
Small, a Nestleton, Ontario native, came to Syracuse during the 2018-19 season as a transfer student from Quinnipiac University. Before starting her college career, she was invited to both the Hockey Canada U18 team and Team Ontario U18 in 2015. For the Durham West Jr. Lightning, she led the PWHL with a .965 save percentage.
Since transferring to play for ‘Cuse, Small has received numerous accolades on and off the ice. As a policy studies senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, she has been named to the Spring 2019, Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 Athletic Director’s Honor Rolls, the 2019-20 ACC Honor Roll and the College Hockey America All-Academic Team.
Last season, Small was awarded the CHA Goaltending Trophy for her performance in the conference with a 6-4-2 record, 1.26 goals against average and a .949 save percentage. She recorded three shutouts as a junior, most notably in a 4-0 victory against Lindenwood in the first game of the postseason tournament.
Goalies are reliant on the defensive play in front of them. Small described her teammates as quiet but supportive, always there to tap her pads after an acrobatic save. Senior defenseman Jessica DiGirolamo has her goalie’s back in more ways than one.
“If Allison is down, you will always see me behind her,” DiGirolamo said. “We always make a joke that I’m like the second goalie. One time, she was covering the puck and she looked back and she was like, ‘Hey Digi, what’s up?’ I have such great confidence in Smallie, and she has such great confidence in me. I love playing with her.”
Small’s orange, blue and white pads are stained black with rubber skid marks from her teammates in practice and opponents on game day. For Small, nearly every mark on her CCM pads represents a puck headed towards the back of the net that was turned aside. Her helmet details a brick wall in light blue, which represents her play for the Orange in her senior season.
While managing her final season between the pipes for SU, Small has been guiding her presumed replacement, freshman netminder Amelia Van Vliet. In her two starts this season, she carried a .940 save percentage, and the team is 2-0-0.
“(Van Vliet) has actually really improved just from the beginning of the year,” Small said in Tuesday’s press conference. “She’s gotten more confidence. She’s finding her own little technique and set of how to get comfortable in the net. I’ve just been trying to help her get comfortable in that role, but also at the same time make her own way in the net.”
Syracuse women’s ice hockey enters the postseason on a seven-game winning streak after starting the season 3-7-1. Small was instrumental in the team’s turnaround, posting career-best numbers throughout the second half of the season.
On the season, she has contended for nearly every record for SU netminders. Kallie Billadeau holds the record with a .940 save percentage, but Small challenged with a .939 on the season, raising her career percentage to .925, the best in program history. In 2020-21, Small has saved an average of 28.78 shots per game, also a record for Syracuse.
Small displayed her finest goaltending during the team’s recent winning streak. In the final two games of the season, a weekend trip to face RMU, she posted 49 saves in a 3-1 victory on Saturday and 35 saves in a 4-1 victory on Sunday. Her 49 saves in the first game rank third in the nation on the season and fourth in program history.
The Orange will kick off the CHA Tournament with a game on Thursday, March 4. Syracuse will face the Lindenwood Lions, a team Small is all too familiar with, at 7:30 p.m. from the Erie Ice Arena.
In early February, SU faced the 2-13-1 Lindenwood three times in three days and won them all by a total of 13-4. Small turned aside 61 of 65 shots across three contests on the Lions’ home ice. At a neutral site, the Orange will look to maintain their dominant play, but Small isn’t overlooking the Lions.
“Lindenwood is always a bit of a tough competitor,” Small said. “They’re sneaky when they beat us and they fly the zone, so I always have to be ready. They get a lot of two-on-one plays, breakouts and good entries. For me personally, knowing that I’ve played them six times in the past two years and we’ve won every game I’ve played is really helpful.”
From this point forward, every appearance Small makes in the crease for the Orange could be her last. The transfer goaltender has made her mark in the record books and in the classroom, and as she prepares for postseason play, she’ll need to quiet her mind, ready her reflexes and stop six ounces of rubber the way only a select few know and love.