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Hockey: Johns brings physicality

Chris Allen | Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Throughout the 2010-11 season and a run to a second-place finish in the CCHA, the message to opposing forwards from the Notre Dame blue line has been clear: Stephen Johns is going to hit you, and he’s going to hit you hard.

Johns, a freshman defenseman from Wampum, Pa., joined the Irish this off-season as a blue-chip recruit and a second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks. As a highly-touted addition, the 6-foot-4 back-line player was expected to bring a physical nature to the Notre Dame defense. Irish coach Jeff Jackson said Johns has performed just as he was expected to.

“He’s everything we expected him to be, and he’s had his ups and downs at times, but let me tell you what, when he has that physical edge to his game, he definitely keeps everybody’s head up on the opposition,” Jackson said. “People know when he’s on the ice. That’s a nice asset to have, something we really haven’t had since I’ve been here.”

The freshman’s role as the Irish enforcer has not come without growing pains, as he spent a number of minutes in the early going in the penalty box for powerful but undisciplined hits on opposing players. Jackson said making more disciplined hits has been a big improvement in Johns’ game.

“I think a big part of his game is learning to be under more control. He’s got to pick his spots to play physical,” Jackson said. “We’ve talked about where on the ice that’s effective and where it’s not. Big open-ice hits are tough to make for a defenseman, because if you miss, it’s a two-on-one. He has to look at opportunities where he’s got a guy in a position against the wall where he can hit them and use the wall as leverage.”

Johns agreed that he needed to adjust his hitting technique in order to stay on the ice while maintaining the physical nature of his play.

“Beginning of the year was a little rough with all the penalty minutes, lately it’s been a little easier trying to pick my spots,” Johns said. “When I do hit a guy, I stay low and keep my elbows in, which was a problem early in the year. It has a lot to do with momentum, one thing I need to learn is when I can hit and when I can’t.”

Just as the scoring of freshman forwards T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee has attracted the increased attention of defenses, Johns’ elevated profile as a back-line enforcer has attracted the attention of referees. Jackson said Johns’ reputation as a big hitter might earn him penalty minutes.

“Well, it’s unfortunate, I think sometimes he’s a marked man with officials,” Jackson said. “I think he’s playing physical out there and sometimes there are good hits that are getting called penalties. Because when he hits you, he hits you hard.”

Though his penalty minutes have decreased over the course of the season, Johns has not abandoned his physical style, and his contributions to the back line along with his nine assists earned him an honorable mention to the CCHA All-Rookie team. The freshman said the physical side of hockey has always been natural to him.

“[Physical play] is probably my favorite thing about the game. Ever since I started playing I’ve really liked being physical. I think it’s really helped this team out, if I can give the team a little spark here and there, it’s definitely a good thing for me,” he said. “My dad always told me before I went out to play, ‘Play your game, be physical, have fun and just do your thing’ and that’s what I try to stick to every day. You know, if being physical is what the coaches want me to do, then that’s what I’m going to do to help my team.”

As the Irish (21-10-5) prepare to play for the CCHA Championship with a second-round series against Lake Superior State on the slate this weekend, Jackson said the Irish were better off with Johns’ intimidating presence on the defensive unit.

“His physical presence has certainly made us a better team,” he said.

Note: Along with Johns’ honorable mention, Lee and Tynan were unanimous selections to the CCHA All-Rookie team, a team comprised of six CCHA first-time players.