February 10, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Return Engagement

Brittain, Back Between the Pipes, Gives Denver Lift

by Kelly Erickson/CHN Reporter

Sam Brittain returned recently after a six-month layoff following knee surgery. (photo: Scott Pierson)

Sam Brittain returned recently after a six-month layoff following knee surgery. (photo: Scott Pierson)

A year ago, Denver goaltender Sam Brittain was in the middle of a successful freshman campaign that would help lead the Pioneers to a second place finish in the WCHA.

Now, more than halfway through his sophomore year, Brittain has only started two games after missing six months to a knee injury.

As a freshman Brittain posted a .921 save percentage and a 2.28 goals against average on his way to a 19-9-5 record. With that performance, his teammates voted him the team's Defensive Player of the Year.

But in a West Regional game against rival North Dakota last March, Brittain injured his knee. At first, it wasn't thought to be serious. After all, he finished the game. But as the offseason wore on, the pain didn't relent. By mid-summer, Brittain and team personnel decided his knee needed surgery, an operation that jeopardized his season.

“It’s those lengthy injuries where you have to have surgery and you’re out for an extended portion of time that really test anybody’s physical and emotional capacities,” said DU coach George Gwozdecky. “Certainly Sam was a big part of our success last season as a freshman ... there was a good chance that the entire season would be taken away from him based upon the length of the rehab, obviously there was no guarantee.

“There’s no one that worked harder on a daily basis on his rehab and listened to his doctors and did the work plus that had to be done.”

Not only was missing six months tough physically on Brittain, but it also took an emotional toll.

But Gwozdecky and fellow netminder Adam Murray said Brittain handled it with aplomb.

“He’s worked his tail off to put our team in a situation to win games down the stretch here,” Murray said. “I know everyone is real proud of him and looking forward to playing some games. Sam’s done a real good job staying mentally tough and maintaining his training. With the strong will of a kid like Sam, it’s not too difficult for him.”

But being forced to observe the game, while tough, can also be a good thing. Learning nuances of opposing offenses and getting a better knowledge of the game could only help him as he continues to get comfortable once again between the pipes.

At least that's what Brittain was thinking.

Win, lose or tie, watching from the stands — specifically for a goalie — is a rough experience, knowing they cannot do anything to help out their team. But Brittain knew he had to remain patient and take away what he could from his time off the ice.

“Watching the season so far, it’s been tough to watch,” Brittain said. “But at the same point, I think I’ve learned a lot of watching. Coming back and playing now, from a team stand point it’s great to be back and help the team out.”

That time in the stands, is exactly what kept Brittain working hard on his rehab and working his way back into the game week in and week out.

“I think the biggest thing for me was being able to watch the guys all the time,” Brittain said. “Just wanting to get back and wanting to get healthy, that drive is always there to get back in the line up and get healthy again. It’s pretty easy to stay focused and not lose that drive.”

Through two games this season — Jan. 28 at Alaska-Anchorage and the following Friday against Colorado College — Brittain has notched one win and one loss. In those two games he faced a total of 57 shots, allowing four goals for a .934 save percentage.

While his first game started out rough (Brittain allowed three goals on just 14 shots through two periods), Gwozdecky was impressed with the way Brittain finished out the final frame against UAA, confident that his solid netminder from one year ago was finally back on the ice — physically and mentally.

“Certainly in his first game back ... you could tell that he hadn’t played since last March,” Gwozdecky said. “His timing was off, his positioning was somewhat off. I know the second period of that game, he wasn’t real happy with the way he played, but certainly — it’s a trademark of Sam’s game — if he’s not happy with his game and given just even a moment to reflect he comes back even harder. In that third period he was outstanding in making every save that he had to and not making anything more difficult than he had to.”

With the Seawolves aching for a comeback, they put 10 shots on net in the third — compared to Denver’s four — Brittain remained solid in the crease, turning away UAA’s every attempt.

“The biggest thing about finishing a game strong was just settling down and relaxing and trusting my knee and knowing that it was going to be ok, it was going to be strong,” Brittain said. “I think it’s stuff like that, just trusting myself and just relaxing.

“It was great. The nerves were definitely there and battling that a little bit, but getting back into game play and trusting my knee, and working with the defensemen again — it was a really great feeling finally getting back.”

Gwozdecky said having Brittain back in the room was a major addition for his team too, something he hopes can spur a second half run for DU.

“Having him back on the ice for practice was great and having him back in goal for us and having his personality as part of this team back in our locker room, all very important things for our team,” Gwozdecky said.

No. 14 Denver (15-9-4, 10-6-4 WCHA) hosts No. 2 Minnesota (19-9-1, 15-5-0 WCHA). Sitting only six points behind the conference-leading Golden Gophers, the Pioneers noted the importance of the matchup — and every matchup moving forward as they eye the post season.

Gwozdecky said he expects Brittain to play at least one night this weekend.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in this position before as a coach, we have three goaltenders, all of whom can give us a chance to win on any given night,” Gwozdecky said. “Adam Murray, Juho Olkinuora and now Sam Brittain with his return. That’s a great luxury and a great depth to have at the position.

"Having said that, we need Sam to get games based upon what he was able to do last year, certainly we know that he’s going to play at least one game this weekend.”

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