Rogue Valley Wranglers goaltender Nick Cafrelli is second in the NORPAC in saves this season and made a league-best 91 saves in a game last month.

Man behind the Mask

The shots came in rapid succession and with little warning. He ducked as one missed over his head by fractions of an inch. Another exploded at his right foot. Still another he fended off to his left with a glancing blow. Clearly, Nick Cafrelli was a man under siege.

The onslaught the 18-year-old faced came in the form of hockey pucks flying off the sticks of the opposing Seattle Thunderbirds in a contest against his Rogue Valley Wranglers.

He did his best to withstand the fire, turning away blasts time and again.

When the night was finally done on Jan. 11, Cafrelli looked at the board to find he had made an eye-popping 91 saves, the most by a goaltender in the Junior A Northern Pacific Hockey League this season.

"I'm pretty sure that's the most shots I've ever faced in a game," said the Fremont, Calif., native.

Such was nothing new for Cafrelli, who has been a bright spot in an otherwise nightmarish season for the expansion Wranglers.

Cafrelli has played in 30 games and faced 1,402 shots heading into tonight's 7:30 battle with Coeur d'Alene at The RRRink in Medford. The two-game series with the Lakers — whom the Wranglers beat twice in January for their lone victories — marks the end of their maiden voyage through the waters of junior hockey.

Cafrelli, a senior at North Medford High School, is second among all NORPAC goaltenders in saves (1,217) this season, despite facing nearly a shot a minute this season.

"I've been saying all season long that if Nick Cafrelli was facing 30 shots a game, we'd be among the top contenders, cause he's kept us in every game," Wranglers coach and general manager Kevin Schwartz said.

Cafrelli might never have found his way to the Rogue Valley had it not been for teammate David Giguere. Giguere and Cafrelli played together on the midget under-18 San Jose Junior Sharks in California last season. After a tryout with Helena in July didn't result in an offer, Giguere encouraged him to contact Schwartz.

"We saw him at camp for the first time," Schwartz recalled. "D.J. called and asked if Nick could come. We weren't expecting him to be among our top goaltenders."

Cafrelli began the season splitting time in net with Josh Powell before earning the starter's job in November.

"At the beginning of the season, it was a battle for the top spot and he, slowly but surely, made his way into that top spot," Schwartz said. "He tends not to flop around anymore and get out of position.

"One of the biggest things I've seen from him improvement-wise is the ability to control rebounds. So the puck will hit his pads and wind up in the corner, which is what is supposed to happen."

His 2-23 record, 7.48 goals-against average and .868 save percentage are partly attributable to an inexperienced defense in front of him.

"One goal that I set for myself is to try to not give up more than one goal for every 10 shots," he said.

Cafrelli first put on hockey skates at age 4 and was in net by 8.

"I would say I'm pretty much a butterfly goalie," he said. "I have pretty quick movement around the crease."

"For the longest time, I liked Dominik Hasek," Cafrelli said of the six-time Vezina Trophy winner, now with the Detroit Red Wings. "But I didn't really model my game after him, because he's kind of a different style of goaltender. I guess the goaltender I try to follow right now is Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks. He has such good positioning and technique."

Cafrelli is quick to credit his dad, Bill Cafrelli, a baggage handler with American Airlines in San Jose, with helping him improve.

"When I picked up goaltending, he knew nothing about it," Cafrelli said. "But he took to it like it was his job. He read books, he was on the internet, he watched camps. He basically became my goaltending coach.

"I've never really had an actual goaltending coach, but my dad has been that guy for me. He's the reason why I'm here right now."

After the season, Cafrelli plans to attend a couple of camps for junior players, hoping to gain the attention of scouts. He hopes to join a Tier II team in either the North American Hockey League or the British Columbia Hockey League next fall. The NORPAC is a Tier III league.

"I would expect him to try out at those levels next season," Schwartz said. "If he doesn't make it, I hope he'll come back here. If he does end up here, I would venture to say he'll only be here for half a season before somebody comes knocking on the door from a higher level."

Despite the Wranglers' 2-44 record, Cafrelli has no second thoughts about making the move north. He's gotten the chance to play regularly at a higher level of hockey and improve his game.

"I'm getting a lot better exposure up here and a lot better quality of shots," he says in his typical understated manner. "It's definitely been a great experience."

Reach Mark Vinson at 776-4499, or e-mail

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