Eric Schierhorn has made it a point not to obsess over statistics the past three months. Still, the Gophers goaltender couldn’t help but peek at the scoreboard during his team’s double-overtime loss to Penn State in last week’s Big Ten tournament semifinals.
The sophomore had 25 saves after two periods. By the end of regulation, his total had ballooned to 40, then a career-high 51 through the first overtime. The final tally: 59 saves, which eclipsed Schierhorn’s previous career best by 17 and gave him a timely ego boost before his NCAA tournament debut Saturday.
The Gophers missed the 16-team NCAA field last season, meaning two classes — 10 sophomores and six freshmen — will play in the tournament for the first time when the fifth-ranked Gophers open against No. 10 Notre Dame in Manchester, N.H. Schierhorn said Wednesday he isn’t feeling any anxiety, just “pure excitement.” At a time of year when goaltending takes on even greater importance, he is playing his best hockey of the season, punctuated by that sturdy performance last Friday in Detroit.
“I’ve always said I’d rather see 60 shots in a game than 19,” said Schierhorn, the Big Ten’s Goaltender of the Year for a second consecutive season. “It’s way more fun that way. You’re more into the game, and you feel better about yourself.
“It was a new experience. And all the experiences I’ve had here have made me better. This year, since Christmas, I’ve felt comfortable and confident.”
The Gophers enter Saturday’s Northeast Regional as the No. 1 seed. They will face an outstanding goaltender in Notre Dame junior Cal Petersen, ranked in the top 12 in the nation in goals-against average (2.14, 12th), save percentage (.928, ninth), shutouts (six, tied for first) and victories (21, tied for 12th).
Petersen has started 87 consecutive games, the fourth-longest streak in NCAA history. Schierhorn shoulders a similar workload. He has started all 74 of the Gophers’ games over the past two seasons; this season, he has been in the net for all but 25 minutes, 44 seconds, with his play sharpening the past several weeks.
Through five games in March, Schierhorn has a GAA of 1.77 and save percentage of .945. He has set career highs with 23 victories and five shutouts, and his season GAA (2.60) and save percentage (.908) are better than his first season.
“Eric has played really well in the second half of the season,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “We know goaltending is going to be a key component, but we’ve got to do a good job in front of him, too.”
The first half of the season wasn’t so memorable. Determined to improve on his solid rookie year, Schierhorn began to place too much emphasis on his statistics, which in turn led to overthinking and stress.
Unable to put together two strong games in a row, he endured what he called the worst slump of his career — until Gophers goaltending coach Justin Johnson urged him to trust in his abilities.
“I just had to focus on the process, not on the result,” Schierhorn said. “At the start of the year, I was focused on what I wanted my save percentage to be, and not on what I needed to do to achieve that.
“So around Christmas, I decided to not even look at my stats. All I wanted to focus on was wins, and on what Justin and I identified as the things that make me successful. Since then, I’ve been playing a lot better.”
Last season, Schierhorn said, he occasionally felt “overwhelmed” as a rookie playing in every game. The more he has played, the more comfortable he has become with handling the demands and pressures of his position.
Schierhorn also said his experience in the U.S. Hockey League — when his outstanding playoff performance in 2015 led Muskegon to the Clark Cup finals for the first time — will be valuable this weekend. So will that 59-save performance Friday, when he got reminded of his capabilities.
“We know what we can do when we all bring our ‘A’ game,” he said of the Gophers. “Looking at our team and the guys we have, when we think of the possibilities of what we can do, it’s really exciting.’’