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April 6, 2011 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

First Look: A New Chance

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Four years ago, Notre Dame captain Joe Lavin watched the Frozen Four on television from Providence, R.I.

His three classmates, Calle Ridderwall, Ben Ryan and Ryan Guentzel, were in Denver, competing for the program's first national championship. The Irish lost to Boston College in the national championship game. For Lavin, the loss was not the disappointment it was for his current teammates.

He played BC a few weeks earlier in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament, while he was a freshman at Providence College. For Lavin, the decision to attend Providence made perfect sense at the time. From Shrewsbury, Mass., PC was a little more than hour from his family. It represented a chance to play at a program trying to inch its way back into regional and national prominence.

However, his hope to lead the Friars' resurgence resulted in nothing but frustration. After a season-and-a-half with the Friars, Lavin opted to the leave the program.

"I had a great freshman year," Lavin said of his time in Providence. "But things happen. The didn't progress or move forward as quickly as people thought. Guys were starting to think too much.

"We were obviously struggling. When hockey is affecting you, it affects all layers of your life," he continued. "I was struggling personally. It's not that I didn't like my time at Providence, but sometimes change is good. I keep in touch with those guys. I made some of my best friends there.

"It was obviously a decision that paid off, being at the Frozen Four. It was just a personal decision."

From Providence, Lavin landed with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL to continue his progression and sit out the year required for transfer students. Having left midway through the 2008-09 season, Lavin would have to wait until the midpoint of the 2009-10 season to play for the Fighting Irish. Getting to Notre Dame, though, required some help from Irish coach Jeff Jackson, who knew a few things about the defenseman already

"I'd watched Joe pretty closely, because he was in that group with Ian Cole and Teddy Ruth at the [U.S. National Team Development Program]," Jackson said. "I liked Joe. I thought he was an exceptional skater, but we didn't have enough room for more defensemen in that class. When I found out he was transferring, I had heard some great things about him as a kid in terms of his character."

Typically, Jackson says, he is skeptical of transfer students.

"There's a reason they're transferring," he said.

For Lavin, though, the reason wasn't behavioral or some disagreement with then-PC coach Tim Army. It was simple. He was unhappy, and he needed to make a change.

That change has proved a major windfall for both the Irish and Lavin, who the players and coaches made their captain prior to their season.

"If you look at what he has done, to be here for three months and be elected by his teammates as captain and have it reinforced by me, it says a lot about him," Jackson said.

"He's a man. He's mature. He's an adult. He leads by example. He's exceptional in the weight room and the classroom, and he works really hard on the ice."

Change can be good

With the arrival of freshmen forwards Anders Lee and T.J. Tynan, some Notre Dame sophomores and upperclassmen learned they would have to accept smaller roles with the team prior to the season.

To allow the gifted pair of freshmen and some of their other equally talented classmates the ice time needed to make the difference they were truly capable of, players, such as Billy Maday, Riley Sheahan and Jeff Costello, accepted slightly different roles than they may have expected. However, the amount of inexperience present at the other forward positions created the need for a trio of responsible, heady forwards to keep opposing top lines off the score sheet.

"They're all very, very talented offensive guys," Lavin said of Maday, Sheahan and Costello. "They have to take on the other team's first line every night and try to shut them down. Sometimes point production can take a hit, but I think a lot of people are starting to notice these three guys are very good offensively and very strong two-way players."

Aside from them, even Lavin drew a new role this season, moving from his primary position as an offensive puck-moving defenseman to a blue liner required to shut down some of the nation's premier scoring lines.

"I was always looked at as more of an offensive guy, but Stephen Johns and I have taken on that role of trying to shut down the first line," Lavin said. "Guys can get frustrated with not having point production, but that's not what it's about obviously. We are where we are today, because of what's happened, so you just learn that individual numbers aren't as important as team numbers."

At the right time

Most who wrote Notre Dame off prior to its games in the Northeast Regional pointed to the club's goaltending situation as its primary motivation. Just a week before the tournament sophomore Mike Johnson allowed four goals in 26 minutes, 5 seconds of action, as the Irish fell to Miami, 6-2, in a CCHA Semifinal. The following day, Jackson opted to start freshman Steven Summerhays against Michigan in the CCHA Third-Place Game.

While the game meant little to the Irish, as they were essentially locked into a three seed in the NCAA Tournament, the decision left some wondering how much confidence Jackson had in Johnson.

Now, two weeks and two wins later, the answer is pretty clear: Jackson has a lot of confidence in his goaltender. Johnson made 32 saves in Notre Dame's 4-3 overtime win over Merrimack, including six in the first 5 minutes of the extra session. To clinch the bid to the Frozen Four, Johnson stopped 37 of 38 shots against New Hampshire, as the Irish defeated the hometown Wildcats, 2-1.

"Mike is character kid, one of the things he is going through is that he had never truly been a No. 1 goaltender, and last year he was just thrown into it," Jackson said. "He had top five numbers in the country in the first half of last year before fading. This year, he took a positive step, he was in much better shape and worked hard in the offseason."

Jackson points to David Brown and Jordan Pearce as the examples set for Johnson as recent star goaltenders for the Irish. Both of those goaltenders became stars as juniors. And, just like Johnson, they showed both brilliance and inconsistency as underclassmen.

Throughout the year, Johnson has demonstrated his ability to be a premier Division I goaltender during some stretches. In his first seven starts of the season, he posted a 5-1-1 record with a 1.99 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. However, a similarly difficult stretch followed, as he went 2-2-0 in his next four starts, allowing five goals to Michigan and six to North Dakota. While Johnson is hardly the first goaltender tormented by the Wolverines or the Sioux, he will see one of them again in the national championship game should the Irish get past Minnesota-Duluth Thursday night.

To do that, it will take quite the performance from Johnson. Given his showing in Manchester, his teammates are confident he will provide exactly that.

"Mike knows that he is a guy we needed to rely on," Lavin said. "He's really bolstered our defense, and our offense has been performing pretty well. Especially in regionals, with a weekend like we had offensively, he obviously helped us out a great deal. We owe a lot of credit to him. I think he is a kid with a very positive attitude, and he knows when you get to this point in the season, you can't lose."

NOTES: Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson is 19-8 in his career in the NCAA Tournament … Should Notre Dame defeated Minnesota-Duluth on Thursday, it will play either North Dakota or Michigan. The Irish played both teams already this season, posting an 0-1-1 record against the Sioux, while going 1-2-0 against Michigan … Notre Dame has played in the NCAA Tournament five times and the Frozen Four twice … Notre Dame and UMD have played 33 times, with the Irish leading the all-time series, 18-10-4. The last meeting came in 2009, when the Irish defeated the Bulldogs, 3-1, in the Shillelagh Tournament final.

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