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November 30, 2012

Johns builds on big hits

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Few associated with it will forget the first big hit Stephen Johns put on an opposing player at the college level.

Sam Calabrese remembers it well. And he could have predicted it. Calabrese matriculated to Notre Dame a year before Johns, but knew the rugged defenseman dating back to their time with the U.S. National Team Development Program.

“I think it was Holy Cross,” Calabrese said. “He put a pretty big hit on someone in his first college game. It started Day 1 with him.”

In fact, it started much earlier.

Johns grew up bigger than most of his peers in Wampum, Pa., which sits about an hour northwest of Pittsburgh toward the Ohio state line, and came natural to blue collar-type of hockey befitting his home region. Rather than gravitate toward more glamor positions, Johns settled in as an old school defenseman.

Working the blue line helped Johns accentuate his greatest gift on skates-- size and willingness to use it -- by dishing out a little pain to kids unfortunate enough to leave themselves in the way. Johns can still remember most of the bigger impacts, whether against the boards or in open ice.

“There are specific hits where I remember if I got hurt on the play or hurt the kid,” Johns said. “Just the big, bruising hits. I remember a lot of hits. Yeah, it’s fun.”

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson recruited Johns in part just for the type of physical play to which he became accustomed as a prep player. Johns had no trouble translating that to the college level, although from time to time it got him in trouble.

During his first two seasons on campus Johns racked up 169 penalty minutes. Sometimes he sought out making a big, crowd pleasing hit rather than staying sound in his defensive principles.

It led to more than one meeting with Jackson, who hoped to keep Johns walking a fine line between reckless and getting away from being an imposing presence.

“He just has to pick his spots,” Jackson said. “And when he does, he’s gonna hit you hard. That helps out team. It does get us juiced up. It gets the guys on the bench excited and it also gives them a sense of confidence on the bench.”

As Johns has grasped how to fit his game into the system there has been growth in other areas. Each of the last two seasons the junior has accumulated no more than 13 points. This year through 13 games he has seven, all on assists, good for fourth on the team.

Heading into a home series with Lake Superior State, which begins at 7:35 p.m. tonight, Johns has more points than prolific forward T.J. Tynan.

Contributing in such a way signals just how much improvement Johns has made since arriving.

“This year it’s almost like he has a better understanding for the game,” Calabrese said. “He’s just really, really in control. Control and Johns, most people wouldn’t put that together in a sentence. He’s creating havoc, but in a controlled way. It’s almost like he’s harnessing that energy and just really doing positive things on the ice for us.”

More evidence of how far things have come: Johns sits fourth on the team in penalty minutes. His point total represents more than half the time spent in the penalty box.

Not that Johns has in any way gotten away from his roots.

“I’m a defenseman at heart and I know I can play a good defensive game first,” Johns said. “Then if I can cash in on the offensive side that’s always good. But I know my job first is to be a defensive defenseman and shut down the other team’s top line.”

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