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Brown gives back to his blueliners

Kyle Cassily | Tuesday, March 20, 2007

DETROIT – Notre Dame goaltender Dave Brown lifted the Mason Cup high over his head and then raised his eyes toward the rafters of Joe Louis Arena to give the league championship trophy a kiss. The rest of the Irish clamored to get a closer look and choked back victory sobs in an arena that has seen countless hockey legends weep at the sight of a silver bowl.

Only minutes before, Notre Dame had won its first-ever CCHA championship with a 2-1 game-for-the-ages victory over Michigan and celebrated by engulfing Brown – and his net – with a human tsunami that sent players, padding and pipes crashing into the boards. Helmets, glove and sticks burst so high out of the tidal wave that they might have brushed the Jumbotron sitting high above the ice in Hockeytown (right wing Evan Rankin still can’t find one of his gloves). And in the middle of it all, crushed under a mob of Notre Dame sweaters, huddled a goalie who had just played his heart out in the biggest game of his life.

Irish coach Jeff Jackson said after the game that Brown is as good a goaltender as he has ever coached – telling words from a man with two national and five league championships and a tendency to go light on the praise.

The Wolverines and their bullet-train fast offense bombarded Brown with 14 shots in the third period alone, which the senior gloved, blocked or smothered as part of his 31 saves in the game. And the Maize and Blue express charged down the tracks with no greater force than in the final two minutes of the game.

Irish defenseman Tom Sawatske was whistled for a cross-check with 1:53 remaining and the Wolverines threw out CCHA points leader T.J. Hensick’s line out onto the ice along with the All-conference first-team defensive tandem of Jack Johnson and Matt Hunwick. All five Michigan players lined up for the power play were NHL draft picks. The Irish don’t have five picks on their entire roster.

Michigan left wing Kevin Porter broke through the Irish penalty kill from the start and backhanded a shot on Brown that the goalie squeezed between his pads, but not before he had to check behind him to see if the puck squeaked through. The Irish kill unit, backed by defensemen Wes O’Neill and Noah Babin, dumped the puck away from Brown and out of the zone several times as the Michigan-dominated crowd of over 16,000 drowned out the Joe.

But each time the Irish cleared the blue line, Hensick bore back into their zone and zeroed in on Brown. With 34 seconds left, Michigan worked the puck in front of Brown’s crease, where – down in his butterfly stance – he scrambled to make several saves from point-blank range. Johnson took one last whack at the loose puck, but Brown smothered it, and the Irish got to take their own whacks at him after the buzzer sounded seconds later.

Not only in those helter skelter final minutes, but in a majority of the game, Notre Dame was forced for one of the few times this season to throw much of the burden on Brown, expecting him to emerge from the pile with puck in glove. And he did it again and again. The senior Hobey Baker finalist entered into showdown after showdown with Hensick and the rest of the quick Michigan forwards, who wheeled past Irish defensemen that were left looking at maize-colored numbers.

Wolverines left wing Chris Summers and Hensick each had a small breakaway in the first period when they burst around the defense on odd-man rushes, but Brown played his angles well and the scoring chances were quickly stuffed. Brown even got a little luck of the Irish – in a game played on St. Patrick’s Day – when Johnson dinged a slap shot off the right post six minutes into the third period in a 1-1 tie.

To be bailed out by Brown was a role reversal of sorts for a Notre Dame defensive unit that allowed only 22.8 shots per game this season. In comparison, another top goalie in the country -New Hampshire’s Kevin Regan -faces 32.7 shots per game from the opposition.

Standing on his head, Brown allowed the Irish offense time to pound away at Michigan goalie Billy Sauer, who looked nothing like the goaltender that surrendered 11 goals to Notre Dame in two regular season games.

And then nine minutes into the third period, Irish center Jason Paige capitalized on Sauer’s only mistake when the goalie mishandled the puck in front of his own net right onto Paige’s stick for the eventual game-winner. The goal was the capper to an Iron Man weekend for the alternate captain.

Paige broke his nose in the first period against Lake Superior State when his loose helmet cage was crushed back into his face – and was back in the game by the third period. The senior center’s mug looked like a bad Impressionist painting for the championship, with two midnight-black eyes and a red gash above the bridge of his nose, but – like Brown and the rest of the Irish – he came up big in arguably the most important Notre Dame hockey game in the program’s history – for the time being.

Brown’s name has been synonymous with Notre Dame hockey this season behind his stellar statistics and fluid style, but in reality, there has practically been a new hero each game for the Irish.

It was fitting that Brown elevated his game in the league championship to take another turn in the spotlight, and ironic that after the best game of his collegiate career, the masked face of Irish hockey couldn’t be seen beneath a pile of champion Blue and Gold.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Kyle Cassily at [email protected]