Shoot the Lights Out
Freshman 'D' Leads Team of the Week: Western Michigan
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Dennis Brown makes one of his breakaway moves.
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In a shootout, the palpable sense of crowd anticipation reaches its pinnacle just as the shooter takes the puck on his stick at center ice and skates almost 100 feet toward the opposing goaltender.
This season, Western Michigan freshman defenseman Dennis Brown has become increasingly familiar with that moment — and the heightened pressure that comes with it. On five occasions, he has been selected as a shootout participant and has scored four times, propelling the Broncos to victory in each instance.
For Brown, scoring on breakaways is a skill he learned long ago, growing up in Southern California — not a traditional hockey hotbed but, in Brown's case, five minutes away from the Iceland Skating Park in Paramount, CA, home of the first Zamboni machine.
"I didn't practice the shootout very much because I was always a defenseman" says Brown, one of five Broncos players from California. "I got real close with a friend of mine — he's a goalie coach, and he needed some extra shooters in the summers. We basically did a lot of breakaway drills just for fun, and I learned some things there."
Now, with Brown as a rookie in Kalamazoo, the shootout has taken on a significantly greater meaning. The CCHA is currently the only league in men's college hockey to conclude games tied at the end of overtime with a decisive shootout.
Though officially recorded as a tie on the team's record, the winning squad gains an extra point in the standings — not to mention a psychological edge after the victory.
Luckily for Western Michigan, Brown appears to be gaining confidence with every shootout attempt. Helping matters is that he appears to have developed a strategy — and even a go-to move.
"I have my mind made up before I even step onto the ice," said Brown of his shot selection during shootouts. "It all started at Ferris State [on November 20]. Coach called on me, and I made a move that I was real comfortable with. It worked really well, and I've had the faith of my coaches and teammates since then."
The move itself is, simply put, dizzying — particularly for opposing goaltenders, who seem to fall into a hypnotic trance as Brown dances around them to score with ease.
(See one of Brown's patented moves in the video clip on the right)
On two occasions, the rookie blueliner has scored the lone shootout goal, propelling the Broncos to victories in each case. In all, WMU is 4-for-7 in decisive shootouts this season.
But consider this: as of press time, those points gained in the four shootout wins represent a difference between a tie for fifth place in the CCHA standings — where Western Michigan currently sits — and a much more humble position in ninth place.
The shootout wins have thus been integral parts of the team's success this season — the first under new head coach Jeff Blashill, who is looking to erase the memories of last year's 8-20-8 record and has quietly led the Broncos to the nation's longest current unbeaten streak.
Western Michigan is also the new CHN Team of the Week, and at No. 11 in the Pairwise, is looking for its first NCAA bid since 1996.
Recently, on HBO's widely lauded 24/7 documentary series on the NHL Winter Classic, viewers saw the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jordan Staal lose an entertaining end-of-practice shootout drill. His punishment included a long climb to the top of section 527 at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.
"Once every week, we have a 'stick boy' game," says Brown of the Broncos' analogous drill. "The guy who scores last has to pick up all the sticks."
Though the punishment for the loser of the Western Michigan shootout competition is perhaps more benign than that of the Penguins, Brown — surprisingly enough — happens to have something in common with Staal.
"I'm actually the last guy you'd want to pick to shoot against my own goalies," says Brown. "They know my moves too well. When we played our first game of stick boy, I was the last one out there.
"Even all the coaches scored before me, and I had to pick up all the sticks."
Fortunately for Western Michigan fans, the result has been different in real-game situations — those moments in which Brown seems to thrive — coming off the bench with a plan and taking the puck from the center ice faceoff dot before skating in alone.
All anyone else can do, meanwhile, is simply hold their breath.