Perhaps no hockey cliché is more often repeated than this simple truth: Few things in the game are more dynamic than a hot goaltender in the playoffs.
They can wash away mistakes. They can save their teams in moments of peril. They can change momentum with one movement of the glove. They can put underdogs on their back, especially in the single elimination NCAA tournament.
Two seasons ago Notre Dame rode with Mike Johnson as it clinched a second ever berth in the Frozen Four. Come Saturday, as the Irish open up the tournament against St. Cloud State, they will turn to Steven Summerhays one week after he helped deliver a league tournament title.
“He’s seeing the puck great right now,” captain Anders Lee said. “He’s anticipating plays and he’s controlling his rebounds. He’s keeping us in games and he’s been one of the biggest reasons we have turned it around. When you have a solid goaltender behind you can play with that confidence that you can be a little more aggressive.”
Getting to the point where he can be depended upon has been a long, grind of a process for Summerhays over the last couple years and even during this season.
When Johnson, then a sophomore, led Notre Dame to the national semifinals a couple seasons ago Summerhays was a sometimes-used freshman coming off an historic campaign the previous year with the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League.
Summerhays compiled a 31-2-3 record, including 20 straight victories, while leading the Gamblers to a championship. He allowed just over two goals per game en route to being named USHL goaltender of the year.
But behind Johnson in South Bend, Summerhays struggled during his first season. He mad 10 starts and allowed 3.04 goals per game to go with a .864 save percentage.
Summerhays watched during the playoffs.
“I was fortunate enough my freshman year to kinda be in the background and watch Johnson work through it,” he said. “He was there in the CCHA playoffs and I got a chance in the consolation game. I got to see how the NCAA tournament works. I kind of got to ease into it.”
Doing so has paid major dividends for Summerhays over the last month.
The Anchorage, Alaska, native wrested the starting job from Johnson toward the end of the last season and in the first half of this year justified the assignment. As the team struggled in January, however, so did Summerhays.
Rebound control and some of the other details of playing goaltender suddenly, inexplicably, escaped him. Summerhays obsessed over the details.
“I was going over my game with such scrutiny that I was trying to change little things that probably didn’t need to be changed,” Summerhays said. “I was messing with the size of my stick and the way I was wearing my pads. You try to do all these little things to see if you tweak something. I think it was more getting back into it mentally, not worrying about little details in my game. More just the compete level and battle level I was having success with in the beginning of the year.”
Not coincidentally, Notre Dame pulled itself out of a losing streak as its starting goaltender rounded into form. Last weekend, when the Irish were at their best in winning a CCHA title, Summerhays turned in top-notch performances.
Often not tested much early in games, he stood tall at critical moments late in the third period.
Summerhays made 36 saves total in two games while allowing just two goals in the most important starts, and on the biggest stage, of his career.
“Some nights you have to stop 30, 35 shots,” head coach Jeff Jackson said. “(Last) weekend he didn’t have to do that, especially early in games. But third period both nights he had to make some really good saves when the game’s on the line. To me that’s very important, that you maintain your focus. It’s challenging sometimes when you don’t face shots for 15 minutes then all the sudden you play a two-on-one.
“It’s a challenging environment for a goalie but he stood up at the end and made two or three outstanding saves against Michigan in the third period that certainly made the difference.”
Now everything Summerhays has soaked in over the last few years will be put to the test as the top seeded Irish face St. Cloud State, the No. 4 seed at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the Midwest Regional semifinal.
No longer will he be able to sit back and watch.
“He knows he’s the guy back there,” defenseman Stephen Johns said. “He knows he’s a stone wall back there. I think he really proved that (last) weekend that he can carry this team at times when there’s mental breakdowns in the defense. He was really spot on this week and really aware of every situation.”