The 2007-08 season was a transition year for Bemidji State goaltender Matt Dalton.
After a highly successful junior career that saw him enter the college hockey ranks rated among the top freshmen in the nation, Dalton hit a wall.
"It was tough for him as a freshman," said Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore. "Dalton came in with an expectation of playing right away. He then found out college hockey wasn't what he expected and that we had some pretty good goaltenders already here. He learned a lot."
Dalton, who hails from Clinton, Ontario, ended up playing only five games on the season, getting four starts and ending 1-3-0. It was an eye-opening experience for Dalton, who dominated every level in which he played previously.
In one year at the United States Hockey League with the Des Moines Buccaneers, Dalton led the league in minutes played and shutouts, while sharing the league lead for wins with 27. He was named to the 2007 USHL All-Star team and was the winning goalie for the West Division squad.
While playing for the Bozeman Ice Dogs of the North American Hockey League, Dalton posted league highs in goals-against average (1.63) and save percentage (.940).
He recorded 33 wins with a league-leading nine shutouts. He earned the league's MVP honor and reached the league's championship game.
"I had quite a bit of success in juniors," Dalton said, "and thought things would be the same here (at BSU). I found out quick there were a lot of good goalies and that I'd have to work hard to earn playing time. I admit it wasn't the easiest lesson to learn -- it was an eye opener."
As difficult as his freshman season was for him, Dalton said, the season did provide benefits. "It turned out being a very important part of my development. Playing behind a guy like Matt Climie, I had the opportunity to see what it took to play at this level," Dalton said. "I learned how to handle situations and what it takes to prove yourself."
Following the season Dalton found himself at a crossroads. "When you reach a fork in the road you have to ask yourself which way you're going to go," he said. "I had to decide if I wanted to move up the hockey ladder or just slide.
"It was a pretty important experience for me."
Dalton said he made the choice to do all he could to be successful. "I worked hard at my game all summer," he said, "and came into fall practice ready to go. I knew I wanted to play and what I was capable of doing. I didn't forget how to play during that freshman year -- a lot of it had to do with confidence."
Dalton ended up playing the vast majority of games for the Beavers this season. He currently stands at 17-10-1 with a fine 2.24 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. It has been a quality season for a player who, only a year ago, was struggling to find his way.
"Dalton had a great year; I'm very proud of him," said Serratore. "Dalton took control when (Orlando Alamano) was injured early in the year and carried the ball for us. He's a big reason why we're as successful as we have been this year. He was our best penalty killer."
Dalton is continuing a long tradition of quality goaltenders at Bemidji State. "He has good size, squares to the puck and has great reflexes," Serratore reported.
"Year in, year out we've been strong on the penalty kill because of good goaltending. When you have a goalie with a .910 to .920 save percentage you will have a good penalty kill. And when push comes to shove, special teams win games."
Dalton said he's the type of goaltender who enjoys playing as much as possible. "I feel more comfortable when I can play weekend after weekend and get in a rhythm," he said. "That way you can get comfortable with your teammates and really learn their style of play."
Relatively pleased with his personal performance this year, Dalton said there are some things he'd like to change. "There are some goals I'd like to have back," he said, "and I I'd like to play the first four games of the season again. But that's the way hockey goes."
But the past is past, as they say, and the focus now is on the next game -- the opening round of the NCAA tournament Saturday against Notre Dame.
"It's going to be a great experience," Dalton said. "My family will be able to come to the regional which is wonderful.
"We know Notre Dame has a tough team and we see it as the same as playing a tough team from the WCHA. We respect them, no doubt, but we can't go into it putting them on a pedestal. We're there for a reason; we belong in the tournament, too."