A Job Well Done
Notre Dame's Johns Spearheads Eight-Game Unbeaten Streak
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
BOSTON Stephen Johns made a simple read.
In his fourth year at Notre Dame, he knows his job. No matter the situation, he makes the appropriate assessment and does it. This time, it was on the power play, and his charge was getting open.
T.J. Tynan took a pass at the low circle and Johns darted from the blue line to the slot. Wide open, Johns collected the pass and sent it toward Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko all at once. The puck sailed past BC's freshman netminder and gave the Fighting Irish a 2-1 lead at 2 minutes, 50 seconds of the second period.
This was Johns' second goal of the game. The top-pairing defenseman handed the unenviable task of shutting down the nation's best players every week popped in a few goals of his own Friday night, leading his club to a 7-2 win over top-seeded Boston College in the Eagles' own rink.
Johns added an assist as well. Three points and a five-goal win over a team many consider a national title favorite to earn a 1-0 lead in this best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series was already more than enough.
"I don't know if coach (Jeff) Jackson would agree that I'm the go-to guy," Johns quipped, "but it's nice to chip in whenever I can. I've worked on my offensive game these four years. To be able to score two huge goals in a huge game like this, it's huge for my confidence."
That's not all Johns is concerned with, though.
That other part of Johns' assignment, the shutting down his opponents' best players, meant a little bit more on Friday night.
Across from Johns almost every time he stepped onto the ice was Boston College's tiny terror, Johnny Gaudreau, and his equally dangerous linemates, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold. Since Jerry York placed the trio together on Dec. 6, 20 games ago, the Eagles had gone 17-1-2. As a group, they've scored 41 goals and added 54 assists.
Two weeks ago, Johns and defensive partner Kevin Lind drew the same task. While the pair had a bit more success than most against BC's best, Gaudreau still managed to make Johns look foolish with one quick flick of the wrists. Notre Dame eventually got the win in overtime, but Gaudreau's ability to turn a game in an instant left an impression on Johns.
"You saw two weeks ago what he can do to me," Johns joked. "He is, hands down, the best player in college hockey. Instead of playing a more physical game on him, you have to contain him. I'm more of a physical player, and I have to hold back the reins this weekend like I had to two weeks ago to try and contain him as much as possible."
Friday night, none of that happened. Gaudreau occasionally picked up the head of steam he collects before striking a blow. Nothing came of it on Friday. Every time there was space, Johns filled it in an instant. Moreover, that space just wasn't there as often. In fact, Gaudreau's 29-game point streak nearly ended until he picked up an assist on a garbage time goal with 2:18 left in regulation and Johns on the bench.
The Fighting Irish, led by Johns, patiently held their lines. BC tried passing through the well-organized Notre Dame defense. BC tried skating through. BC tried hanging a forward deep in the neutral zone. Nothing worked. Each rush, each pass ended with a calm takeaway and dump in from Notre Dame or, on a few occasions, an odd-man rush that quickly became an Irish goal.
"People like to think we're a defensive team, but, when you defend with a purpose, it leads to offense," Jackson said. "That's our philosophy. People say we're a defensive team. I say the exact opposite. It's about puck possession. It's about making plays in transition, but you can't have transition without defense."
At the heart of it all was Johns, the senior defenseman who quietly does exactly what he's asked. No matter its difficulty, no matter its lack of glamour.
Johns credited Notre Dame's win on Friday to the same handful of factors that led to the Irish's 6-0-1 unbeaten streak heading into Friday.
"It was a huge confidence boost to be able to come in here two weeks ago and take that game," he said. "We've been rolling here for the last month."
Unlike those nights, though, Johns and his teammates didn't perform their usual postgame ritual. Notre Dame's famed Victory March did not echo through the visiting locker room in Conte Forum on Friday night.
Saturday's 4 p.m. puck drop is UND's chance to clinch its spot in the Hockey East Semifinals next weekend at TD Garden. No, the job isn't done just yet. Friday night, though, for Notre Dame and Stephen Johns, especially, the job was done. And it was done pretty damn well.