SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Goaltending is one of the toughest positions in sports, and professional hockey is no exception. It’s a high-pressure role that is constantly critiqued and analyzed, much like quarterbacks in football or pitchers in baseball. It’s a position that can make or break a team, and while the start of the 2022-23 season hasn’t been to the level that the Springfield Thunderbirds had hoped for so far, it’s safe to say their crease is in good hands with Joel Hofer, who has excelled in the starting position and whose stats rank among the best in the American Hockey League in only his second full season. His success makes Springfield a threat in the highly competitive Atlantic Division and should spark the Thunderbirds to make some noise in the playoff hunt as the season progresses.
Hofer’s strong play started a season ago when he was part of a tandem with Charlie Lindgren, who was following a similar trajectory in his first season with the Blues organization. With the Thunderbirds ranking as one of the league’s top teams, Hofer was called upon for ten games in the Calder Cup Playoffs, including two in the final round, memorably scoring a goal in Springfield’s series with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, something he’d narrowly miss out on repeating during the preseason with the St. Louis Blues as he had two attempts at the empty net that both narrowly missed. Hofer posted a shutout in his next game, in Game 1 against the Charlotte Checkers, while the Thunderbirds were without Lindgren, who was on recall to the Blues during their playoff bid, and it was a sign of things to come.
“If that doesn’t get you fired up, you don’t have a pulse! If that doesn’t get you out of your seat, there’s nothing more I can show you!” Joel Hofer fires from against the boards behind the net for a goalie goal! #WBSvsSPR @FieldPassHockey pic.twitter.com/iFEamBqFXQ
— Corey Swartz (@cswa11) May 13, 2022
Although the Thunderbirds were downed by an elite Chicago Wolves team in the final round that spring, the writing was on the wall for Hofer to take on a bigger role within the organization. After Lindgren earned a promotion by signing a contact with the Washington Capitals to be part of their tandem, St. Louis has handed the top gig to Hofer, who is now taking on top minutes along with rookie netminder Vadim Zherenko. Both goaltenders have been impressive this season, but Hofer has risen to the occasion with the opportunity as one of the league’s best at fifth among qualified goaltenders with a 2.20 goals-against average and a 0.928 save percentage over 18 games, the highest workload in the category. In a league where scheduling requires goaltenders to be more of a 1A and 1B versus an old-school starter and backup role, Hofer has proven that sometimes the old ways work best by carrying the majority of the workload. Although Springfield sits on the outermost playoff position in sixth as of this writing, Hofer has given them a chance to win in virtually every game he’s played in.
Complete robbery by Springfield goalie Joel Hofer on Merkulov. #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/2Be26woB8A
— Mr. Tenkrat (@PeterTenkrat) October 16, 2022
Those stats only get better when examined further. In his last four games, Hofer has allowed only four goals and is perhaps on his hottest streak of the season. He blanked one of the Western Conference’s top teams, the Milwaukee Admirals, for his first shutout of the 2022-23 season with 25 stops and followed it up on Wednesday with only one goal against in 27 shots over the Eastern Conference’s top scoring team in the Bridgeport Islanders. More remarkably, it’s the second time in this recent stretch that he has held off the Islanders, previously making 33 stops in a 3-1 win back on December 4. It’s hardly a coincidence that the Thunderbirds are 3-0-1-0 in that time when Hofer has given his team a chance to win with such great numbers.
The timing couldn’t be better for the Thunderbirds, who are starting to find their way after a difficult start to the defense of their Eastern Conference championship. Between losing some top players to recalls and others to injuries dating back to before the season started, the team is relying on steady goaltending and clutch scoring to earn victories until their lineup stabilizes. It’s starting to happen with Nikita Alexandrov, Jake Neighbours, and Matthew Highmore providing top-end talent, but even in this recent stretch, the margin of error for goaltenders is extremely small. In six games in December at the time of this writing, the Thunderbirds have scored just 11 goals but have allowed only ten in that same stretch, making each contest a nail-biter for their fans.
Although the start to the 2022-23 season hasn’t been as fruitful as Thunderbirds fans have hoped in terms of wins, Hofer’s play has been so outstanding that Springfield is a clear favorite to make a second-half push and emerge as a contender when the Calder Cup Playoffs roll around. In a division as stacked as the Atlantic is this season, it will be no easy task for the Thunderbirds to get there, but with the current group and those on the mend, they’ll be a dangerous team that will be difficult to score on with Hofer between the pipes. It’ll be no fun for opposing teams when they see number 30 starting in goal this season.
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