It’s not long after 5:30 a.m. at a Winston Churchill ice hockey practice and coach Ray McKenzie tells the team to skate. Freshman goalie Alex Chen, unsure of what to do, looks to junior netminder Noah Kalicka for guidance.
Do they skate with the rest of the team? Do they perform side work alone in the net?
Despite competing with each other for time in the net, Chen isn’t shy about asking Kalicka for help. The same is for Kalicka. The two have worked together to make themselves a viable rotation while helping the Bulldogs to first place in the Montgomery County 2A Division midway through the season.
They both took different paths to where they are. Chen, who plays club for Team Maryland 98 AAA, has been in net since he was five years old, taking over the crease because no one else wanted to. Kalicka, whose club team is the Tri-City Eagles, made the move to goalie just more than four years ago, seeing it as a way to stay on the ice. He, too, is in his first year on varsity.
So far, Chen has been the first option. He’s started six of the nine games, posting a 3.19 goals against average while going 4-2. Kalicka started the other three games, all wins, and has allowed six goals.
“We haven’t had two guys compete in a while,” McKenzie said. “The main thing is they’re both great kids. They work hard. They come to everything. ... They’re two good kids who want to get better.”
Their progress has been expedited by practicing against one of the top offensive attacks in the state.
The Bulldogs have three of the top five goal scorers in the Montgomery County 2A division — Zach Arden and Ross Allen with 12 goals, and Connor Martin with nine — and facing their shots during practice helps when it comes to shots that count.
“It definitely boosts our confidence when we stop pucks in practice,” said Kalicka, who missed Friday’s 9-0 win against Richard Montgomery with a hamstring injury. “When we’re getting those hard, hard shots in practice, you aren’t getting those in the game. So it’s easier to make saves since you’re used to shots that are faster and harder.”
But that offensive attack can be a double-edged sword at games. While the offense is pressuring and the defense is keeping the puck out of the defensive zone, the goaltenders have a lot of down time.
“It helps quite a bit knowing that your team is going to score, but it’s kind of hard. A lot of times when I’m playing, there aren’t a lot of shots,” Chen said. “You sort of get kind of bored. Then there’s a sudden jump at you when there’s a rush and sometimes you might make a mistake because you’re cold.”
That hasn’t been the case this season. While under the heaviest duress, the tandem has come through with its best performances.
Chen had his breakout night against Gonzaga (8-2) on Nov. 21, his first start of his high school career. Despite a 4-3 loss, he made 23 saves and left an immediate impression on his coach.
“He played really, really well,” McKenzie said. “He played like a pro.”
Kalicka’s best showing was against Thomas S. Wootton. The Bulldogs led 3-1 late in the second period. It was nearly 3-2, but Kalicka stopped a cross-rink one-timer, making a pad save to keep the net empty.
Those types of performances are becoming more frequent, and the goalies are making sure whoever is in net is on top of their game. The player on the bench watches to make sure the other maintains proper technique, offering advice during breaks in play.
So who will be doling out the tips when the playoffs arrive and who will be on the ice?
Time will tell.
“It’ll definitely be a gut feeling on my part,” McKenzie said. “That’s all it is really: Who’s going to give us the best chance at winning? So when we get to February we’ll decide on that.”