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Clarkson goalie Karpowich makes his mark

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POTSDAM — A little more than a year before he arrived on the Clarkson campus, Paul Karpowich thought his competitive hockey career might be over.

Karpowich, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, had just finished a miserable season of junior hockey with the Brooks (Alberta) Bandits, backing up goalie Kody Vanrentergem. Vanrentergem played in 44 games that season while Karpowich got into only 21.

“It was a rough year,” Karpowich, now a senior, said. “It seemed like everything I did, I couldn’t get in the net. I did all the extra stuff the coach asked and I couldn’t get playing time. After that season I decided I wasn’t going to go back. Usually if you go back to Thunder Bay you’ve basically given up. There isn’t a very good league there.”

But before Karpowich had the chance to quit he was traded to the Wellington Dukes before the 2007-08 season, and his career got a second chance.

He was the team’s starting goalie, everything was falling into place, and then he got pneumonia and missed two months of the season, appearing in only 22 games.

Karpowich got his job back and ended his last junior season with a 15-3-2 record, a 2.15 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage and found himself being recruited by several schools.

The first visit was to Colgate, but Karpowich said he never heard back from the Raiders. He want to St. Lawrence University next and said he was given a deadline by noon the next day to decide if he wanted to be a Saint. That night former Clarkson coach George Roll gave him a call, and a scholarship offer, and Karpowich’s college career was settled.

In a span of five years, Karpowich has gone from a goalie who almost gave up the sport to one of the top goalies at the NCAA Division I level.

Following Saturday night’s 3-2 win over Rensselaer with a 29-save performance that gave him 3,396 saves, he broke Dan Murphy’s school record of 3,375, set from 1994-98.

It hasn’t been an easy journey for Karpowich. He was thrust into a starting role at Clarkson as a freshman, replacing former Ken Dryden Award winner David Leggio, who is now a goalie with the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans.

“You still hear about (Leggio),” Karpowich said. “He was great. I walked around campus my freshman year and I’d hear, ‘The next Leggio’. I don’t think you can say it like that. I’m just trying to do all I can and hopefully leave a good enough impact.”

Heading into this weekend, Karpowich ranked seventh in the nation with a .931 save percentage and 12th in the nation with a 2.10 GAA. He is tied for third nationally with five shutouts and is one of the preliminary Hobey Baker Award candidates.

“One of his strengths, and a lot of times you don’t equate that with a goaltender, is hockey sense,” Clarkson coach Casey Jones said. “Awareness and reading plays is a real strength of his game. What’s impressed me the most is what Karp’s doing with our young (defensive) core and bringing them along. What he’s done for me is very impressive from the standpoint of our youth on the blue line. He’s afforded us an opportunity to be in the game every night.”

Murphy, who is a business development manager in Seattle, has never met Karpowich, but has kept up on Clarkson since he graduated in 1998.

“It seems like he’s handled adversity pretty well,” Murphy said. “He hasn’t had the easiest four years. He’s had some rough spots. I think he seems like the guy that kind of pulls them out of the fire.”

Karpowich and Murphy share a few things in common. Both were not sure of their future heading into their final year of junior hockey and both wound up starting at Clarkson as freshman.

Clarkson assistant coach Phil Roy was a defenseman at the school and had Murphy as his goalie for his first two seasons.

“They win,” Roy said, when asked the similarity. “They stop pucks and they give the team a chance to go far in every game. (Karpowich’s) will to win is very similar to Dan Murphy. I knew when I was playing as a defenseman that (Murphy) was going to make that first save. As a defenseman you just cleared the pucks. There are similarities there. Every shot he sees, he’s going to stop.”

Karpowich has been on some Clarkson teams that failed to live up to the school’s tradition. Clarkson went 10-19-7 in his freshman season then slumped to 9-24-4 his sophomore year. Last year, the team went 15-19-2 and Roll was let go after the season and replaced by Jones.

But Karpowich has had a save percentage of at least .900 in all but his sophomore year, where he finished at .898. The experience of being in the starting lineup early on has paid off.

“I was lucky because I played a lot early,” Murphy said. “I got used to all the rinks. In the ECAC the rinks are so much different. Just learning an arena was a lot of it.”

Midway through Karpowich’s sophomore year former Clarkson goalie Chris Rogles joined Roll’s staff as an assistant coach and he played a big role in helping Karpowich reach his current level.

“A lot of (their work) was on angles,” Rogles said. “Sometimes I think he overcommitted. We worked a lot on movement and staying a little bit deeper and picking the right times to challenge and be more aggressive. Sometimes he’d take himself out of the play. He’s much more compact now. His movements are more precise.

“He’s big (6-foot-2, 193 pounds) and he’s strong and explosive. He has very good agility in the net too. For a big guy he moves well and is fluid and quick. I was impressed with that.”

Clarkson entered this weekend with an 11-10-5 overall record and its 5-4-3 record in conference play was good enough to put the team in a tie for third place, based on win percentage.

“This being my last semester, I want to leave a lasting impression,” Karpowich said. “We want to make this year count and have a deep (playoff) run. I think we’re going to continue with the trend we’ve been on. We haven’t had too many nights where we were a total disaster on the ice. I don’t think we have had any of those this year.”

Karpowich was selected in the seventh round of the 2008 National Hockey League draft by the St. Louis Blues before his arrival at Clarkson. The selection came a little more than a year after he had considered giving up the sport.

“I wasn’t watching the draft, I was out fishing the day they had the draft,” Karpowich said. “My dad (also named Paul) told me on shore that I got drafted. I thought he was joking around. No one (from an NHL team) ever talked to me. I never got a phone call or anything. It was totally unexpected.”

Karpowich is a student of Clarkson history and put former Golden Knight players like Erik Cole, Kent Huskins and Dave Taylor in a painting on his goalie mask.

Earlier this season he got to show that helmet to Taylor, who is the Blues director of player personnel, when he spent a weekend at Cheel Arena to scout Karpowich.

“It was something special, having (Taylor) come back to where he went to school,” Karpowich said. “I still talk about that today.”

Karpowich is unsure of his future but does know whenever his playing career ends he wants to find a way to stay involved in the game, perhaps as a coach.

“I have to be involved,” Karpowich said. “It would be great coaching college hockey.”

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