Hockey: Minding the pipes
Dan Murphy | Friday, January 26, 2007
It is said that defense wins championships.
If the motto is right, then it’s no wonder that the No. 3 Irish are on a short list of contenders for both the CCHA and National Championships this year.
Anchored by senior goaltender Dave Brown, Notre Dame’s veteran defensive unit is currently ranked second in the country behind the red-hot Boston University Terriers.
“We want to win the CCHA, and we want to win the playoffs and go full force in to the NCAA Tournament – we’re not looking to sit back,” Brown said. “We are looking to win some championships down the road here.”
With a 1.74 goals-against average and 19 wins under his belt, Brown is setting a pace to do just that.
Last year’s NCAA champions, the Wisconsin Badgers, were also led by defense, as goalie Brian Elliot finished the year with a 1.55 GAA. Following the same trend, Irish coach Jeff Jackson’s two previous national championship teams – 1992 and 1994 with Lake Superior State – excelled by holding opponents to less than two goals per game as well.
Brown’s stellar numbers this year are the result of a dedication to improve both the physical and mental aspects of his game. He has shaved seven-tenths of a point off his GAA and has already notched 10 more victories than in the entire 2005-06 season.
About a year ago, Brown took a cue from an old teammate and began seeing one of Notre Dame’s sports psychologists on a weekly basis to improve his mental toughness and discipline. The specialist taught Brown how to stay sharp off the ice, as well as between the pipes.
“I’ve learned to speak up if something happens that I don’t agree with. Or if something is going on that I feel I need to address, I’ll address the situation.” Brown said. “That really transfers over to my game, because being a goalie you can’t let anything get by you.”
In his junior campaign, the goaltender gave up 15 goals in his first three starts. After a year with the sports psychologist, it took opponents 12 games to sneak 15 pucks past Brown.
The mental drills have given him the edge needed to build up his skills on the ice. Every week Brown and fellow goalies sophomore Jordan Pearce and freshman Tom O’Brien go through a series of exercises with Jackson in order to keep their fundamentals sharp. The group works on staying square to the shooter at all times and taking proper angles to keep themselves in the right position.
“I’ve been able to increase my mental stamina, which then translates to better physical stamina as well,” Brown said. “It has helped me stay consistent and go out there each night to play to the best of my abilities.”
Brown’s abilities are as good as it gets this year in college hockey. The leader of the Irish defense recently found himself atop a list of candidates for this year’s Hobey Baker Award. The Hobey Baker has been awarded annually to the nation’s top player since 1981. Previous winners include NHL superstars Paul Kariya, Chris Drury and Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller – a Michigan State alum.
The only other Notre Dame player to be considered for the award this year is junior Mark Van Guilder, and the last member of the Irish to be named one of the 10 finalists was former player and head coach Dave Poulin in 1982.
“You try not to really pay attention to that stuff because it changes every week,” Brown said of the attention. “As long as I am able to contribute to the team winning, that’s my main goal.”
He is currently ranked third in an Inside College Hockey poll behind New Hampshire forward Trevor Smith (a sophomore forward with eight points in his last six games) and Miami forward Nathan Davis.
Davis and Brown will go head-to-head this weekend as the RedHawks travel to the Joyce Center for two crucial CCHA matchups. If Brown can shut down Davis and his linemates at home, he will most likely creep back up toward the top again.
The nomination is one more thing to add to the already impressive list of accolades that Brown has collected over his career in South Bend. The Stony Creek, Ont., native’s resume includes 2006 team MVP, as well as two CCHA Goaltender of the Week honors this year and being named to the Lightning College Hockey Classic all-tournament team in October.
The four-year starter, splitting time with Morgan Cey in his first two seasons, has been a workhorse for the Irish this season. Brown has defended the crease in 24 of the team’s 26 games, amassing nearly 1,500 minutes on the ice.
“I get a few practices off here or there to stay fresh, otherwise I am glad to be able to battle every night to help the team win,” Brown said.
For the record
A quick glance through the Notre Dame record books is all you really need in order to understand the impact Brown has had on his team and the program. The senior owns the lowest career goals-against average (.277), which has only dipped lower with his stats this season, and he is on pace to add the highest career winning percentage to his trophy case. Brown also owns three of the six single season records for goaltenders.
“It means a lot to me to establish a few records here,” Brown said. “I’m glad that I could set a new standard for goaltending and set the bar a little higher for the next generation of guys coming in here.”
Brown’s marks follow a steady incline in defensive improvement for Notre Dame. Many of the records that he has taken over were recently set by Cey in Brown’s first two seasons.
One of Brown’s most impressive benchmarks while wearing the blue and gold has been his nine career shutouts. The most recent came last weekend in a 3-0 road victory over Western Michigan.
“I have to thank the defense for being able to be there for me every night,” Brown said. “The mental aspect of the game is huge for that kind of situation. With five minutes left, with no goals against, you have to stay mentally sharp.”
Brown said he normally becomes aware of the shutout going into the final period and has to really bear down to seal the deal. So far this year, Brown leads the CCHA with three goose eggs to his name. He is still one shy of the four that he collected during his rookie season. In a streak that began in Brown’s third collegiate start, he held opponents scoreless for three straight games and 193:27 consecutive minutes – another Notre Dame record.
Band of brothers
Brown, along with the rest of the senior class, is also taking his off-ice leadership role seriously. The off-campus members of the team moved into two houses at the beginning of the year to provide a place for the team to meet, relax and become a family.
“We really wanted to have a tight knit group this year,” Brown said. “We really wanted a band of brothers with one goal and no one straying from that goal.”
The decision has paid off well for the team all year long, as they have been able to stay loose in big situations – they’ve gone 8-1 against ranked teams this year.
“On the ice, he’s been unreal for us,” senior captain T.J. Jindra said of Brown. “We are a pretty loose class, and we like to joke around.”
Brown will find himself in the spotlight this weekend and need to call on all his mental, physical and leadership qualities to keep the Irish on top of the league and himself on top of the Hobey Baker watch lists.