As happy as Eric Schierhorn was with his freshman season, the Gophers goaltender wasn’t completely satisfied. Though he was named the Big Ten’s goalie of the year — and was nominated for the Mike Richter Award, given to the nation’s top college goalie — he saw room for improvement.
But when Schierhorn began to overthink things, his performance went in the opposite direction as a sophomore. Over the first two months of the season, he could not string together two strong outings in a weekend, a maddening cycle. “I’d never gone through a slump like that, not even in juniors or midget hockey,” Schierhorn said. “I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ It was really frustrating.”
It wasn’t until Gophers goaltending coach Justin Johnson took him aside for a talk that Schierhorn recognized the remedy. By rediscovering his faith in himself, Schierhorn uncluttered his mind and his game, putting him on a much smoother path before facing Michigan this weekend at Mariucci Arena.
The Gophers have won their past four games, aided by Schierhorn’s more consistent play. He has given up six goals and stopped 89 of 95 shots over that span. The Anchorage, Alaska, native was named the most valuable player of the Mariucci Classic on Dec. 30-31, after stopping 60 of 62 shots in a 5-1 victory over Mercyhurst and a 4-1 triumph over Massachusetts.
That’s a significant step forward from his pre-streak goals-against average of 3.06 and save percentage of .882. After using the two-week holiday break to rest and recharge, Schierhorn spent the two weeks after the Mariucci Classic — when the Gophers had another schedule lull — re-establishing a routine and polishing his game, in the hope of maintaining the progress of the past month.
“I was focused on doing too much,” Schierhorn said of the volatile start to his season. “I really wanted to escalate in my sophomore year, and I think I put a little too much pressure on myself.
“[Johnson] brought me in and said, ‘Hey, you just need to be yourself. You’re good enough. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.’ That helped out a lot. It felt really good these last four games to just play the way I know I can play.”
Over the past four games, Schierhorn said, he felt more comfortable in the net than he has all season. Gophers coach Don Lucia noticed the difference.
“The break was good for him,” Lucia said. “To me, [his play] was the biggest bright spot of the Mariucci Classic. He had two real good back-to-back games; he looked square, he looked strong, he looked comfortable. That’s what we’re going to need from him.”
Schierhorn started all 37 games last season, finishing 20-17 with a goals-against average of 2.69, a save percentage of .906 and three shutouts. He earned the most victories of any freshman goalie in the nation and was named to the all-Big Ten first team and all-rookie team.
A high achiever throughout his career, Schierhorn set specific goals for this season: to eclipse his victory total from last year, lower his GAA to two goals or less and raise his save percentage to .920 or better. Those ambitions, though, began to weigh on him. Rather than following the usual advice of keeping things simple, Schierhorn started to overanalyze — and the more complicated he made things, the less consistent he was.
Against North Dakota in November, Schierhorn surrendered five goals on 22 shots in the first game, then registered a 33-save shutout in the next. A similar pattern repeated over the following three weekends, culminating in a loss at Ohio State in which he gave up six goals on 18 shots.
Talking to Johnson helped him refocus. “Just carrying myself with confidence helped more than I ever thought it would,” Schierhorn said. “I have to stay positive and keep telling myself I know what I’m capable of. I know what I’ve done in the past. If I keep working hard and showing consistency in my practices and preparation, things will come around.”
Schierhorn said he feels wrapped in a rhythm and routine now, something he lacked during the season’s first half. If he can maintain that — and keep his mind clear — he said he believes he still can reach the goals he set before the season.
“Over these last two weeks, coach Johnson said, ‘This isn’t a time to let your foot off the gas,’ ” he said. “We’ve worked hard in practice to stay sharp. I want to keep building from here.”