The trademark of the Michigan hockey program over the years has been the success of its seniors during each season”s stretch run on and off the ice.
With just four seniors returning to this season”s team, everyone expected goalie Josh Blackburn the starter for each of his first three seasons to emerge as the team leader, a player the Wolverines could count on during the season”s grind. After playing his best hockey at the end of last season and guiding his team to the 2001 Frozen Four, Blackburn was named Michigan”s Most Valuable Player.
In the Wolverines” 4-3 victory over St. Cloud in the NCAA West Regional Final, he made save after save, keeping his team ahead. To fully take the wind out of the Huskies” sails, Blackburn lunged across the net, saving a point-blank scoring opportunity that would have tied the game in the final five minutes and could have kept the Wolverines out of the Frozen Four.
But clutch stops such as this have been missing from Blackburn”s game thus far in his senior season.
In the “Cold War” game at Michigan State, Michigan was in position for a monumental upset over the top-ranked Spartans in front of 74,000 fans, leading 3-2 with less than one minute left in regulation. But with 47 seconds remaining, Michigan State”s Jim Slater tied the game at three, sending a bullet top shelf past Blackburn.
When Northern Michigan beat the Wolverines 1-0 in the first game of the teams” October series, Michigan desperately needed another big performance from the Oklahoma native. The Wildcats ended up tallying five goals on Blackburn the next night, clinching their sweep at Yost Arena.
Against then-No. 1 Minnesota in the College Hockey Showcase, the Golden Gophers ripped the Wolverines for three goals in the first eight minutes, assuring a victory before Michigan even had a chance to get into a rhythm.
The climax of Blackburn”s troubles came against a struggling North Dakota team during winter break in the Great Lakes Invitational. He gave up five goals for the third time this season, and Michigan was forced out of the championship game for the second straight year.
Michigan coach Red Berenson, obviously disappointed in his netminder”s performance, pulled Blackburn for the second game of the GLI against Michigan Tech and fellow senior Kevin O”Malley earned the 7-4 victory over the Huskies.
Not every game has gone this way for Blackburn. His dominance in the Alaska-Fairbanks series in which he gave up just one goal was exactly what the team (1-3-1 in the CCHA at that point) needed to find its way back into the conference race.
And this past weekend at Notre Dame without four of the team”s top players Blackburn made the necessary stops to earn the Wolverines a 2-1 victory Saturday. The series with the Irish was a microcosm of his up-and-down season, as he squandered a 3-1 lead in the third period Friday night forcing his team into a 3-3 stalemate.
No one expects Blackburn to be perfect in every single game. That”s unreasonable. But Michigan is expected to maintain its perch atop the CCHA.
The team needs Blackburn in order to secure a spot in the NCAA West Regional, which it will host this year at Yost Ice Arena.
He must find the edge that he displayed in tough situations down the stretch.
He needs to make the stop that will save two points for his team in the standings. And eventually, Blackburn”s ability to stone the opponent in crucial situations will be the difference between Michigan making it to the Frozen Four in Minneapolis or watching it on ESPN.
Everyone is counting on him to bring his game to a new level especially Berenson, who has seen his goalie go through some hard times before.
“This is the time when he should be at his best,” Berenson said. “He”s played strong in the playoffs, but he”s a senior now and he obviously needs to be a leader on this team. He”s got to do everything on the ice and off the ice.”
“I need to step up more than I have this year. I need to step into that leadership role more being a senior.”
Making Blackburn”s second-half performance even more important to him is the legacy that he will leave behind. The last two Michigan goalies prior to Blackburn (Steve Shields and Marty Turco) each started all four years for the Wolverines, and each has also made his mark in the NHL.
It”s now or never for Blackburn. If he doesn”t improve in his second semester, his chances of being called up by the Phoenix Coyotes, who drafted him in the fifth round of the 1998 NHL Draft, will be greatly diminished. And his legacy? People will remember him as the goalie who couldn”t win the big one. He”ll leave Michigan with two fewer national championship rings than Turco, which is the true measuring stick of goaltending success at Michigan.
“How he plays this semester will dictate what people think of him as a hockey player,” Berenson said. “I don”t think he”s proven anything to anyone at this point one way or the other. He could be a player with a future in the game or a player without a future.”
Said Blackburn: “People remember the last game that you play. I”ve got to play better in the second half.”
“Blackie,” as his teammates call him, came back to Michigan for two reasons: To improve his skills and win a national championship.
But if Blackburn doesn”t accomplish his first goal, there is no way he and the Wolverines will achieve the other.