What a difference a couple of months has made for Jordan Pearce.
When the junior goalie took the net in the season opener on Oct. 12 against Wisconsin, he was still in the midst of a battle for his starting spot with highly-touted freshman Brad Phillips right on his heels.
When Pearce skates into goal tonight with Notre Dame's season on the line, however, he'll do it as Notre Dame's unquestioned backstop, the 2008 CCHA goalie of the year.
"If it wasn't for him, we probably would have had a difficult time making the Tournament," coach Jeff Jackson said. "He's played well throughout this whole [second-half] stretch. He's become the backbone of our team, and he's gotten better as the season's progressed."
But that doesn't mean he didn't showcase his ability right from the get-go, right wing Mark Van Guilder said.
"The first game of the season against Wisconsin, he was amazing in that first period, right away," the senior captain said. "That was huge for his confidence, and he's built on that and rode it all the way through the season."
Though Pearce is in his third year with the Irish program, his action was rather limited for his first two as the back up to All-American David Brown. Pearce started six games as a freshman and just three a year ago, and while he was impressive in posting a 2.01 goals-against average as a sophomore, he remained a relative unknown.
"There were question marks," Van Guilder said. "We knew he was a good goalie coming into the season, but everyone, with losing Brownie from last year, was saying 'How are we going to replace him?' Well, we're going to replace him with Jordan Pearce, that's what we're going to do.
"There's a lot of people that were doubting that he could have the year that he's having, and he's got so much confidence now after the season he's had."
Pearce agreed, though he still has a positive outlook on having to compete for his position, even during the season.
"As the season's gone on and I've played more and more, I've felt more confident in the net, learning from experience," Pearce said. "I'm not complacent and I'm not taking my spot for granted even now - I know I have to play and battle for my own position.
"Competition always breeds excellence, as they always say. You look down the ice and you see Phil[lips] and [sophomore] Tommy [O'Brien] making big saves and playing well, and it makes you even better, makes you want to work even harder."
While the favorite for the job was a mystery to the players, Jackson said he was confident Pearce would eventually be the one to emerge.
"I told him going into the season that it was his job to lose," Jackson said. "He was a junior, he had paid his due, he didn't mope, he didn't [complain]. He fought through the last two years, and I think that's a part of why he's having success now - he didn't let it impact him in a dramatically negative way."
If anything, Pearce said, watching Brown, a Hobey Baker finalist last season, contributed positively to his play.
"The one thing I admired most about David Brown was his consistency, especially last year," Pearce said. "He always was on top of his game, and our team was always in it - I don't think he ever had a bad game, and I remember one bad goal through the whole year, maybe."
And Pearce, who boasts a conference-best 1.95 goals-against average, has done just that, even through Notre Dame's second-half scoring drought that has seen the Irish score more than two goals just three times since the end of January.
"The thing that has impressed me is that there's been a lot of pressure on him because we haven't been scoring," Jackson said. "Every game has been like if he gives up a goal, we might lose - 1-0, 2-1, or whatever. He's dealt with that pressure very well, he hasn't broken down, and I think he played his best game as our goaltender Friday night [in a 2-1 overtime loss to No. 3 Miami (Ohio)]."
Pearce's performance on Friday, and really throughout his whole junior season, hasn't come as much of a surprise to Jackson - though the third-year Irish coach did have his initial questions about his netminder.
"I had the confidence to think he could be a good goaltender," Jackson said. "I was more concerned about his mental makeup, as far as his ability to overcome adversity, his mental toughness - because I didn't really know what it was. I'd challenge him all the time in practice, and I never got much of a response from him, so I didn't really know what to expect in that area.
"Ability-wise, I thought he had it, and he's proved to me that he's ready to compete, battle, play tough when he needs to play tough. He has a great temperament in that he doesn't let things rattle him."
That will be key for Pearce and the Irish tonight against a high-powered New Hampshire offense. Rest assured, though, that if Notre Dame extends it season, Pearce will have been a major factor.
"No matter who wins Friday night or Saturday night or in the Frozen Four, a big part of it is going to be because of goaltending," Jackson said. "You can't win a championship without great goaltending, at any level. It's just like winning a championship without a great pitcher or a great quarterback - you have to have that go-to-guy, that guy that can make the difference in goal."