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Hockey: O’Brien enters goalie race

Kyle Cassily | Thursday, October 11, 2007

The competition to replace Dave Brown as the Notre Dame starting goaltender has become a three-man race since third-string goalie Tom O’Brien has risen from dark horse to neck-and-neck candidate for the former Hobey hopeful’s spot.

O’Brien, a sophomore, has conditioned and played his way into joining junior Jordan Pearce and top-ranked freshman prospect Brad Phillips in a battle to backstop the No. 8 Irish that looked last spring as if it had only two frontrunners.

“It’s probably more confusing now than it was a month ago,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said Tuesday, a day before the team’s Blue-Gold scrimmage and three days before the season opener against Wisconsin.

After Hobey Baker finalist Brown graduated last spring, Jackson told O’Brien that he had to lower his body fat in order to get quicker and be able to recover from a down-on-the-ice position faster. O’Brien dropped 15 pounds in summer conditioning and has played superb in fall practices.

“He’s worked extremely hard,” Jackson said. “That’s what it’s all about. Every once in awhile you come across a kid that is bound and determined to get a chance to play.”

During the Irish practice Tuesday, all three goaltenders were dead on their angles and directed rebounds well into the corners. The trio made strong saves in full-strength and special teams scrimmage situations, but O’Brien stood out with several spectacular stops, including one that drew howls from the Irish bench.

“Each guy has their day, but they’ve all shown what they can do,” new Notre Dame captain Mark Van Guilder said. “So basically you have to see what they do in a game. It’s different in a game – see how they react. You can’t just judge it all on practice.”

The Irish will host their Blue-Gold scrimmage tonight at 7:30 in the first chance the public has to see the team play since last year’s record season when Notre Dame won its first-ever league regular season and playoff championships, held a No. 1 ranking for over two months and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual-champion Michigan State.

Jackson said Pearce and O’Brien will start on opposite sides tonight for the first half of the game, while Phillips will be substituted in for Pearce during the second half.

Last season, Pearce battled for the starter’s role with Brown in October before Brown took the job. The native of Anchorage, Alaska, started in only three games, where he posted a 2.01 goals-against average and made 51 saves.

Phillips was selected in the seventh round of June’s NHL Draft after he spent the previous two seasons with the U.S. National Development Program, an organization that Jackson helped to build.

“It’s been a friendly competition,” Pearce said of the goalie battle. “On the ice we step it up. It’s almost like you see the guy on the other end giving his all, so it makes you want to try even harder.”

Jackson said Pearce would start in net Friday against Wisconsin at the Lefty McFadden Invitational in Dayton, Ohio. The netminder for Saturday’s game against Ohio State or Mercyhurst, however, has not been decided and may depend on how O’Brien and Phillips play in the Blue-Gold game.

“The Blue-Gold Game will make a statement to me,” he said.

The Irish will most likely spend all of October and at least much of November, if not longer, evaluating the three goalies. Pearce will always get one game of each two-game weekend series, Jackson said, while the second game will fall to O’Brien or Phillips.

“I’ve never been a big fan of a two-man system, but if you have two guys that are of equal caliber then we may rotate a couple,” Jackson said.

Note:

uVan Guilder was named Notre Dame’s captain Oct. 1 by Jackson, where he will fill the leadership role that was held for the previous two seasons by graduated forward T.J. Jindra. Van Guilder emerged last year as a force to be reckoned with on offense, scoring 18 goals and dishing out 16 assists on his way to being named one of the top 40 finalists for the Hobey Baker.

“Mark is a good representative of our team – his values and his work ethic, his character, all those things,” Jackson said. “All of our captains have those qualities, but Mark will best represent what our core values are as a team, and be able to communicate those to others.”

Senior defensemen Brock Sheahan and Dan VeNard, along with junior right wing Erik Condra, were named alternate captains. Sheahan and VeNard are the two seniors returning from last season’s top defensive unit in the nation. Condra is an offensive playmaker who shares the wealth with his linemates, putting up 34 assists and 14 goals last year, and is a leading voice in the Irish locker room.