MARQUETTE - According to Northern Michigan University goaltending coach Joe Shawhan, it was love at first sight when he saw Mathias Dahlstrom between the pipes.
The only concern for Shawhan, however, was that Dahlstrom was out of the Wildcats' league.
"The first time I saw him, I immediately laid eyes on him and I knew that was the guy I wanted," Shawhan said. "But to be honest, I didn't think we'd have a chance at a guy of his caliber.
Northern Michigan University redshirt freshman goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom of Sweden plays the puck behind the Wildcats’ net on Oct. 18 against Nebraska-Omaha at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Dahlstrom has started 17 of NMU’s 20 games this season after having to sit out all of 2012-13. His goals against average of 2.10 and .930 save percentage both rank in the top 20 nationally while his 1.53 GAA and .946 save percentage in league games leads the WCHA. (Journal file photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
"Technically, I don't think there's anything he doesn't do well. His strength is his anticipation and competitiveness. You couple that with his perfectionist style and his work ethic and willingness to try new things and be innovative, there really is nothing he doesn't do well."
Dahlstrom and the 'Cats turned out to be destined for each other with both sides' patience paying off this season.
After only practicing in 2012-13, Northern's 22-year-old redshirt freshman from Smedjebacken, Sweden, is currently a top four goalie in the WCHA. He ranks in the top 20 nationwide heading into his 18th and 19th starts of the season at 7:07 p.m. on Friday and Saturday against NMU's old CCHA rival, the Alaska Nanooks, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette.
"I knew he was going to be good, but I didn't know he was going to be this good, this quick."
- Northern Michigan University goaltending coach Joe Shawhan
Dahlstrom's 2.10 goals against average in 18 appearance ranks fourth in the WCHA and 17th in NCAA Division I hockey. The Swede's .930 save percentage is third in the league and 15th in Div. I.
Against WCHA foes like the Nanooks - who split with the 'Cats in Fairbanks in November - Dahlstrom leads his conference counterparts with a 1.53 GAA and .946 save percentage.
"Sitting out a year, I didn't know what to expect. Maybe I would be a little off?" Dahlstrom said. "The team has been really good in front of me. They've made it really easy for me."
- Mining Journal: Wildcats playing catch-up in WCHA, starting at home vs. Alaska Nanooks
- NMUWildcats.com: Mathias Dahlstrom profile
- WCHA.com: Overall goaltending leaders
- WCHA.com: Conference-only goaltending leaders
- College Hockey Inc.: National Goaltending Leaders
- Elite Prospects: Mathias Dahlstrom profile
- Follow Matt Wellens on Twitter (@mattwellens)
Dahlstrom came to the United States in 2010 hoping to revive his love of hockey after playing for Leksand's Under-18 and U-20 teams in Sweden.
Based on the recommendation of a friend who came to the U.S. to play for Alaska's Kenai River Brown Bears of the NAHL, Dahlstrom said he decided he'd try something new and move away from home.
The move rekindled his love of hockey, he said.
"Coming over here, I just wanted to try something new," Dahlstrom said. "I had a friend who played for Kenai, where I started my first season over here. He loved it, so I figured I might as well try that. I wasn't really having fun my last year in Sweden with hockey."
Dahlstrom played 39 games for Kenai River in 2010-11, posting a 2.88 GAA and .908 save percentage. He was drafted the following year by the Chicago Steel of the USHL and finished the 2011-12 season with a 3.02 GAA and .906 save percentage in 44 games.
He signed with the Wildcats in December of 2011 after plenty of encouragement from Shawhan, NMU head coach Walt Kyle and his brother, assistant coach John "Junior" Kyle.
"Northern for sure showed the most interest in me and I had a lot of calls from Joey, even Junior and Walt too, but a lot from Joey," Dahlstrom said. "I came here on a visit and I really liked the place. It reminded me of home. Everything: the weather, the town, the amount of people."
There was a catch with Dahlstrom, however. Because he grew up in Sweden with admittedly little knowledge about college hockey in the U.S., he lacked the right classes necessary to meet NCAA requirements. Before he could play, Dahlstrom had to sit out a season.
While other teams were unwilling to wait for Dahlstrom to become eligible, Northern could because it had Jared Coreau for at least the 2012-13 season, but probably not 13-14.
Dahlstrom said he hesitated at first over the thought of not playing for an entire year, but when NMU said he could practice all of 12-13 on scholarship, the choice was "pretty easy."
"If I wouldn't have been able to practice, I don't know what I would have done," Dahlstrom said. "That's pretty hard not doing anything for a year."
Dahlstrom has been honored twice by the WCHA this season as Rookie of the Week on Nov. 26 after recording back-to-back shutouts against Alabama-Huntsville, and again on Jan. 7 as Defensive Player of the Week for allowing one goal in two victories at Bemidji State to raise his shutout total to three.
While Dahlstrom's rise to the top of the WCHA may come as a surprise to some, it hasn't been for those inside the BEC and to those who saw Dahlstrom practice day-in and day-out all of last year alongside Coreau.
"The thing that surprised me a little was how quickly he was able to step in and not miss a beat from not playing a year," Walt Kyle said. "I expected a little bit more of an adjustment period.
"I haven't had a guy come in and just straight out of the gate be a starter. I've had guys split some games, but not anyone come in and do that. Nor do I like to have a guy come in and do that."
According to Kyle and Shawhan, there were days Dahlstrom was the better goaltender in practice than Coreau, who left after his junior season to play in the Detroit Red Wings' system.
"I knew he was going to be good, but I didn't know he was going to be this good, this quick," Shawhan said.
"There were a lot of days in practice last year - many, many days - where we felt he was our best goaltender, even with Jared here and everything we had."