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Hockey: Blue-line pairings master roles, discover offensive side

Matt Gamber | Wednesday, April 9, 2008

With a 1.95 goals-against average that ranks sixth nationally, junior goalie Jordan Pearce has earned elite status among college hockey netminders. He’s also been credited with much of Notre Dame’s success this year, especially considering its troubles scoring goals during the season’s second half.

But within the locker room, the team knows the Irish go as the defensemen go.

“We try to play solid defensively and our offense kind of stems from that,” Pearce said. “It helps out when our guys cover their areas as well as they have and keep guys from getting free and keeping shots out on the perimeter. I might have to make a big save or two a game, but other than that, they make my job pretty routine.”

The Irish have three pairs of defensemen that log plenty of ice time – sophomore Kyle Lawson and freshman Ian Cole, senior Brock Sheahan and freshman Teddy Ruth, and senior Dan Venard and sophomore Brett Blatchford. Each pairing has its own defined style and strategy, making all three units valuable to the Irish.

Lawson (five goals, 20 assists) and Cole (eight goals, 10 assists) combine to form the most offensively prolific tandem, with Lawson serving as the “quarterback,” coach Jeff Jackson said, and Cole the sharpshooter.

“[Kyle] makes good decisions with the puck … and he’s as good defensively as anybody,” Jackson said. “It’s just a matter of putting [Ian] in the position to use his big shot effectively. That’s why we’ve put him in that role, to be much more active shooting on the power play recently.”

And it’s paid off of late, as four of Cole’s eight goals have come in the CCHA and NCAA tournaments. He scored twice in a 6-3 win over Ferris State in game two of the CCHA quarterfinals, before netting one goal in a 2-1 win over the Bulldogs in game three and adding another on the power play in the 7-3 win over New Hampshire to open the NCAAs.

“I’ve just been finding the seams and guys have been giving me good passes,” Cole said. “I’ve gotten some open shots and I’ve just been hitting them.”

Lawson has transitioned well into his role as the distributor.

“All I’m looking for is to feed him the puck,” Lawson said. “He’s got that abominal shot, and I’d rather pass than shoot anyway. I’ve got no problem sliding it over to Ian.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Sheahan (one goal, 11 assists) and Ruth (two goals, 3 assists), the two hard-hitting enforcers who are almost always charged with stopping an opponent’s top lines – which they will try to do tonight against an explosive Michigan offense, led by forwards Kevin Porter (33 goals) and Chad Kolarik (28 goals).

“Brock’s leadership back there … every night, he’s a man. He plays against the top lines and the top players as tough as anybody,” Jackson said. “Teddy’s strong, he’s physical, he skates well, and he makes good decisions with the puck … I love the guy’s grittiness, I like his character, and I think he’s got a ton of upside [offensively].”

While Ruth scored a big insurance goal late in the West Regional final against Michigan State and Sheahan tallied an assist in the win over UNH, the offensive production they do provide is just icing on the cake.

“We pride ourselves on being strong physically and doing a good job against the other teams’ top lines,” Sheahan said. “There’s certain guys you have chemistry with on the ice, and he’s one of them.”

VeNard (five goals, seven assists) and Blatchford (12 assists) are a mix of the two, as Jackson has seen major improvements in VeNard’s defensive intensity and Blatchford’s ability to distribute the puck.

“I try to get into the rush as much as I can and kind of be the second wave of attack,” said VeNard, who had scored just two career goals in three injury-plagued seasons coming into his senior campaign. “Brett’s a guy who makes a good first pass. We just to try to hold our heads above the water and try to stop the third and fourth lines when we’re out there.”

Regardless of who’s patrolling the defensive (and, depending on who it is, the offensive) zone for the Irish, Jackson has confidence in his blue-liners.

“I think that they have developed into one of the best corps of defensemen in the country,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a nice balance of guys that are solid defensively, and we’ve got guys with offensive instincts, but they all know how to play defense. With the development of the young guys … and the leadership of the two seniors, we’re definitely solid.”