BALTIMORE - Michael Gvozden was scuffling along, seeking whatever answers he could find as Johns Hopkins lost five games in a row in his first year as the starting goalie.
The sophomore mixed good days with a couple nightmarish performances. His on-field demeanor did not jibe with his goofy personality, and as the Blue Jays’ skid grew more severe he found himself in coach Dave Pietramala’s office.
“It took Mike time to realize that who he was was plenty good enough. Being someone else wasn’t good enough,” said Pietramala, whose fourth-seeded Blue Jays (10-5) meet top-seeded Duke (18-1) in tomorrow’s national semifinals. “It was like we came to some unbelievable revelation, and it was just me saying, ‘Who are you?’ ”
Right now, Gvozden might be the hottest goalie in the country. When he and Johns Hopkins bottomed out at 3-5, Gvozden had fewer saves (84) than goals allowed (85). In seven games since, he has 81 saves against 29 goals allowed, a sizzling .736 save percentage.
He has turned it around in his own quirky way - and by tuning out the torrent of criticism he faced.
“I had a lot of people in my ear, a lot of people from home and a lot of people from here telling me to show you can be mean out there and lead your defense,” Gvozden said. “I’m just not a mean guy. I don’t talk smack on the field. If anything, I joke around with the guys.”
Gvozden neither looks nor sounds frightening. At a wiry 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, he does not convey the physical intimidation Jesse Schwartzman, his beefy predecessor, did. His voice is raspy after spending a practice or game yelling directions to his defense, his laugh reduced to a high-pitched giggle.
But he has snickered a lot throughout the Blue Jays’ revival, cracking jokes while providing a foil to the intense Pietramala.
When Pietramala mentioned during a news conference that Gvozden had botched “one or two” clears during Saturday’s quarterfinal victory at Navy, Gvozden slyly raised three fingers to set the record straight.
Their dynamic changed as Gvozden settled in. Pietramala figured out how to pry a better performance from his starter, while Gvozden learned to handle the relentless barking that usually led to tension-breaking comedic moments late in the week.
“He just decided I would react the way Jesse did, which is like in your face and yelling,” Gvozden said. “I’m not going to cower away. I just don’t really have any incentive to play harder when someone tells me that.”
It helps that Johns Hopkins’ defense has regrouped along with Gvozden, and defenseman Matt Bocklet said the Blue Jays have simplified their approach while also preventing opponents from securing easy looks close to the cage.
In turn, Gvozden’s laid-back approach has propelled the defending national champs back to the final four.