Not many college hockey teams could lose their top three goalies in one offseason and even dream of competing for the NCAA tournament the following year. But this is the dilemma Ohio State faced coming into this season.
Enter redshirt junior goalie Sean Romeo.
The University of Maine transfer has done more than hold his own in the Buckeyes’ goal, posting better numbers to this point in the season than his predecessors — 2016 second-team All-Big Ten goalie Christian Frey and 2012 Chicago Blackhawks seventh-round draft pick Matt Tomkins.
Through 13 games, Romeo holds a 7-3-3 record with a 1.69 goals against average, fifth-lowest in the NCAA, while also boasting a .931 save percentage that is tied for seventh. In his senior season, Tomkins ranked 24th in goals against and did not rank in the top 30 for save percentage. Frey did not rank in the top 30 for either category during his final campaign.
“I’ve said this to everyone I’ve talked to, his focus, his preparation, his detail, what he does every day is amazing,” head coach Steve Rohlik said. “I’ve never seen a guy that comes to the rink every day and goes through his routine like Sean does.”
A native of Cary, North Carolina, Romeo’s first sports was soccer, not hockey. But when he saw roller hockey, he switched sports as soon as possible. Then, when the team’s goalie was sick for a game, Romeo took his opportunity and never looked back.
“I played goalie when I was 6 years old for the first time, let in 10 goals my first game, didn’t go well, but I loved it,” Romeo said.
Romeo started in 23 games as a freshman at Maine, but was benched his sophomore season for then-freshman Rob McGovern. Romeo played in only two games that year and transferred to Ohio State the following offseason.
Due to transfer rules, Romeo sat out the entire 2016-17 season as a redshirt, though he could practice with the team during that time. While this time was helpful, Romeo said sitting out an entire season was often a struggle.
“You’re part of the team practicing every day, but you’re not really part of the team when it comes to games and stuff, so it’s tough,” Romeo said. “But I think I learned a lot about myself, along with hockey, and how to prepare and how to get ready when I had my opportunity.”
Volunteer assistant coach and former Ohio State goalie Dusty Carlson began working with Romeo last offseason, and had nothing but praise for the goaltender’s work ethic.
“He’s a workhorse,” Carlson said. “He’s basically like Seabiscuit, the more you work him, the better he’s going to do.”
Carlson said he knew Romeo’s mental game was not going to be an issue. He said since Romeo allowed seven goals in an exhibition game against Ryerson, he’s grown increasingly confident and calm behind the net.
Romeo said the improvement he has seen from the exhibition game was more due to getting the feel back in net against a team other than his own.
“I don’t know if it’s really improving, more just like kind of shaking the rust off,” Romeo said. “That first game just felt so different being away from a game for over a year, so I think that was really helpful to kind of get back into the groove and kind of figure things out again.”
Romeo is coming off arguably his best series of the season, making 31 saves in a 3-2 victory against then-No. 17 Michigan, then upping that with a 34-save performance in a 5-1 win versus the Wolverines the following night. The Buckeyes will continue to need performances like these to maintain success. While their team defense is second in the NCAA at 1.93 goals against, the offense is only tied for 34th in scoring.
For now, a goalie that once gave up 10 goals in his first game as a 6-year-old, a goalie that was almost entirely replaced following a strong freshman campaign, is breathing life into a team that began the season with low expectations. Not coincidentally, the team is now ranked No. 11 in the NCAA, and has tournament hopes on the horizon.