ALBANY, N.Y. It looked like a desolate situation.
With the season, and eight seniors” careers on the line, the Wolverines desperately battled back from a 3-0 deficit to within a goal halfway through the third period of last night”s semifinal loss to Boston College. But every heart on the Michigan bench stopped for a split second with just over nine minutes to go.
Three-time All-American and Hobey Baker Award finalist Brian Gionta was in on a clean breakaway for Boston College. Nothing separated the prolific scorer and Boston College”s best player from ending Michigan”s season except goalie Josh Blackburn.
Even Blackburn didn”t like the possibilities.
“I knew it was Gionta coming down, so I was just wondering what he was going to pull out on me,” Blackburn said with a chuckle. “I didn”t know if he was going to do a back flip and choke me or something.”
But just like he”s done time and time again and all season long Blackburn kept the Wolverines in the game with a big save. He stood his ground when Gionta deked, and steered aside his biggest save of the game with ease.
“Gionta had his chances, but Blackie stoned him tonight,” Michigan associate coach Mel Pearson said. “It kept us in the game it”s one of those big saves you need to keep you in the game to give us at least a chance to win the game.”
And this performance wasn”t a one-time thing, as Blackburn has continued to come up big when it counts the most.
“Josh, in his three-year career here, has been nothing less but a money goalie,” said Michigan volunteer goalie coach Stan Matwijiw, who joined the program last season. “He”s always given us a chance, and that”s all you can ask for.”
Matwijiw spends vast amounts of time helping to develop the three Michigan goalies in practice. He uses his previous experience as a NHL goaltender to work on specific aspects of goalkeeping, both mental and physical, in practice on a daily basis. But Matwijiw has tried a different approach at the end of the season in an attempt to implore his philosophy on Blackburn for his performance in important games: “You never make one game any bigger than another.”
“We stopped coaching with two weeks left in the season and just let him play,” Matwijiw said. “We weren”t going to teach him anymore, we just let him play in his comfort zone.”
Blackburn”s “comfort zone” was challenged viciously, early and often, last night. Boston College had five glorious scoring chances on the doorstep of the goal, but Blackburn steered them all aside and gave the rest of the Wolverines confidence at the same time.
“He”s been our rock all season long,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “When our team was faltering, Josh Blackburn was there to make the difference.
“He gives our defense confidence. He gives our whole team confidence.”
Especially when goalies are often put in the pressure-cooker because they”re the last line of defense. When a team wins, they”re praised. While after a loss, the netminders are easily made a scapegoat. But it”s what is inside Blackburn that keeps him confident about himself in tight situations.
“I don”t like being nervous when I play, so I try to trick myself and pretend it”s just like any other game,” Blackburn said. “I just take a couple deep breaths and tell myself it”s another hockey game. Hockey is just a game, after all and I have to remember to have fun.”
With the question still remaining whether Blackburn, a 1999 draft choice of the NHL”s Phoenix Coyotes, will return to Michigan for his senior year, there”s one thing that Berenson knows for certain.
“I”ll put Blackburn up against any goalie,” he added. “And you saw why in tonight”s game.”