Notre Dame hockey: Johns finding a balance between emotion and control

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND - Every loss this year hurts a little more, and it shows on Stephen Johns' face.

Each game is one step closer to the end for him, one fewer that he has left with his Notre Dame hockey teammates in his final season in South Bend.

Johns, a top defenseman for the Irish, came back for his senior year to do something big. He could have signed this summer with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that selected him in the second round of the NHL draft in 2010. He chose to return to college for one more shot at getting back to the Frozen Four, and maybe winning an NCAA championship.

After a hot start that saw the Irish reach No. 2 in the national polls, injuries and uneven play have slowed that momentum. Notre Dame currently sits 13th, with a 10-7-1 overall record and 3-4-1 in Hockey East play, still hoping to recapture that early-season national-contender form.

Every loss in the first half seemed to push Johns further from that goal. Every loss was painful.

"This is my last shot, I understand that," Johns said. "This is my last year to win something big with my brothers, and every loss this year hurts a lot deeper than it did my freshman or sophomore year. I want to win every game."

Developing his game was the other reason Johns put off going pro for another year. The physical side of hockey has always been his strong suit. Johns can be counted on for a handful of bone-jarring hits every game, but he's gradually become one of Notre Dame's most important defenders.

He ranks second on the team with 33 blocked shots, and Irish coach Jeff Jackson calls him the team's "stalwart back there" on defense.

But that physical presence has at times gotten him into trouble as well. Ill-timed penalties can kill a team's momentum, and cutting those down was a clear focus this season.

Johns also has offensive talent, with a big shot and good puck skills.

Knowing when to shoot, or when to leave the blueline and jump into the offense, had been the issue at times during Johns' first three years.

That overall cerebral aspect — controlling his emotions and improving his decision making — has been the most important skill-set Johns has needed to develop this year. Through 19 games, he's already tied his career high with four goals, and he is just four points away from setting a career high.

"I think he's made a real effort to try and stay emotionally in control, because that's when he gets himself into trouble," Jackson said. "He's been much better at that this year."

As an example, Jackson pointed to the coast-to-coast goal Johns scored against Vermont on Nov. 3 when the Irish were down 2-0 and needed a spark.

"He basically almost went from goal line to goal line, but he picked the right spot," Jackson said. "He didn't force it, and that's growth.

There's times in the past where he's tried to do that, maybe in the wrong area of the ice, or maybe when he shouldn't be, when his partner's not in position to cover for him, whatever it may be.

There's been a number of those instances where he's played a real integral part in a scoring chance or a goal."

Johns understands now, maybe better than ever, how important developing this part of his game will be when he makes the leap to the more cynical world of professional hockey some time next year.

"It's huge because, they care about you, but they don't care about you nlike they do (at Notre Dame)," Johns said. "You have a mental breakdown during a game, they'll just trade you. Here, they can't trade you away in college hockey, so it's a lot different. You have to be a lot more mentally tough when those situations come."

The past three-plus years have been about finding a balance between emotion and control, without sacrificing one for the other. The results are showing this year.

"I'm not blowing a gasket every time that something doesn't go my way like I used to," Johns said. "I feel like I've got my emotions under check a little bit more. Being a captain this year, I feel like I have to set a good example on the ice."

His teammates have noticed.

"Each time Stephen has a good shift, it gets the guys going a little bit more," said fellow defenseman Eric Johnson. "He's a real impact player out there."

Notre Dame's Stephen Johns, center, looks to pass around Minnesota's Brady Skjei, right, during the college hockey match between Notre Dame and Minnesota on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, inside the Compton Family Ice Arena at Notre Dame in South Bend. Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN