Defense wins championships.

Paul Wong
Michigan will count on Blackburn to stay close in some tough early season games.<br><br>BRENDAN O”DONNELL/Daily

It”s as old an adage as there is in sports. But with all the offensive questions surrounding the Michigan hockey team, a strong defensive core has never been more important to coach Red Berenson and his staff.

Whenever doubters try to question the strength of coach Red Berenson”s young and inexperienced squad, one name always surfaces quickly.

Senior goalie Josh Blackburn.

“You need a great goalie if you want to go far, if you want to win championships,” sophomore defenseman Mike Komisarek said. “Blackburn is that kind of goalie.”

Entering his fourth season as Michigan”s starting netminder, Blackburn carries a quiet confidence that should help to settle the minds of a team that lost its top scoring threat (Andy Hilbert), its best defensive player (Jeff Jillson) and nine graduated seniors.

“He is a great guy to have in net,” Komisarek said. “Hockey is a game of mistakes, and we are going to make them sometimes. So knowing you have a guy like Blackie to save you sometimes that”s a good feeling.”

But despite the departures, despite the question marks and despite the youth that surrounds him, last season”s Most Valuable Player isn”t going to change his approach this year.

“It doesn”t feel much different,” Blackburn said. “We have a lot of young players, but they had 10 new guys in 1998 when they won the title. I try not to think about that stuff. I need to just concentrate on playing my game and having a great season.”

Blackburn is the latest in a strong line of Michigan goaltenders. The Wolverines” last two netminders, Steve Shields and Marty Turco, have enjoyed solid NHL careers.

“I didn”t get all the records that those guys got,” Blackburn said. “It”s kind of sad when you think that it is almost over.”

One mark that is certainly within reach for the Choctaw, Okla. Native is Turco”s school-record of 11 shutouts.

Blackburn enters this season with nine, after posting a career-high five goose eggs a year ago. During the 2000-01 campaign, Blackburn earned career-bests in wins (26) and goals-against average (2.27). His goals-against average in Central Collegiate Hockey Association games was a school-record 1.97.

One mark that is certainly out of reach for Blackburn is Turco”s NCAA win record of 127. Turco bested the total of his predecessor, Shields, who held the record at 111.

Blackburn enters his final season with just 65 wins, thanks in part to a foot injury suffered during his sophomore year.

Weather or not he sets any more records, Michigan goalie coach Stan Matwijiw is convinced that Blackburn is among the best Wolverines to play the position.

“From all the understandings and indications that I”ve heard, he could potentially be the best of the last three guys that we”ve had in here,” Matwijiw said. “I don”t think that is a far stretch by any means.”

The idea of such a positive comparison never seemed possible to Blackburn when he was in high school.

“It was awesome,” Blackburn said. “I never considered myself to be that caliber of player to play here. When the coaches called and told me that Michigan was asking about me and calling to check up on me, I was really excited and surprised. They were my first choice right away.”

When Blackburn arrived in Ann Arbor, he was quickly thrown into the mix for the Wolverines.

“I felt a lot of pressure because of the guys who had gone through the program and I was just thrown in the fire there,” he said.

The tension following his initiation quickly faded as Blackburn worked with Matwijiw to improve his game.

“If you look at Josh”s game tape from his freshman year and compare it to say his game at the Final Four last year, he is a completely different player,” Matwijiw said. “The reason for that is he has such an open mind. He doesn”t mind trying new things to make himself better.”

Blackburn has a very low-key and relaxed mindset when he goes into a game.

Whether he is pitted against last year”s Hobey Baker Award winner from Michigan State, Ryan Miller, or his own teammates in the Blue-White exhibition game, his mental approach stays the same.

“We talked a lot about keeping the game simple. We do a lot of thinking and analyzing during practice that is the place to think,” Matwijiw said. “During the games we want it to just be habit and reaction.”

In two or three years, Matwijiw expects to see Blackburn starring on the next level.

“He is an excellent student of the game, he is a fabulous athlete, he reads the ice very well there aren”t a lot of holes in Josh Blackburn”s game.”

In addition to Blackburn, the Wolverines can also count on senior backup Kevin O”Malley if something should happen to their star.

“We”ve got two veteran senior goaltenders,” Berenson said. “Not many teams can say that.”

O”Malley went 8-4 in relief when Blackburn was injured two years ago.

The Wolverines also added a third goalie this week.

Former club team member Justin Spurlock will be skating with the team as the No. 3 man.

“This has always been my dream,” a tired and bruised Spurlock said after practice. “If they said “fourth string” that”s fine I”d do anything. I”m just honored that they decided to let me play.”

Josh Blackburn

Height 6″ 1″

Weight 195 lbs.

Gr. Senior

Pos. Goalie

From the Coach:

“From all the understandings and indications that I”ve heard, he could potentially be the best of the last three guys that we”ve had in here,” Matwijiw said. “I don”t think that is a far stretch by any means.”

goalie coach Stan Matwijiw

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