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Gothberg, Fitzgerald Shining on National Stage

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins
— Pressure isn’t all that difficult to combat when you’re a goaltender, especially when you’re Zane Gothberg.

The Bruins prospect and University of North Dakota sophomore goaltender sees pressure as just another part of the job description, and it’s one he willingly signed up for when he decided to put on the goalie mask as a kid.

“Hockey’s a very competitive sport, and man — it’s, ‘I’m gonna score a goal, I’m gonna deny it’ is kind of the mindset you got to have as a forward and as a goaltender, going up against one another,” Gothberg said as he and UND continue to prepare for the 2014 NCAA Frozen Four. “Just working on that kind of, ‘Hey, I hate to be scored on’ mentality is something that I think I take a little bit of pride in because hey, that’s my net. I got to protect it at all costs.”

By all indications, reminding himself how much he hates to be scored on has led to plenty of success this season for both Gothberg and North Dakota as they push toward the final few days of the college hockey season.

Bruins Assistant General Manager Don Sweeney said Gothberg’s effort to step up in the leadership department has paid dividends — not only for Gothberg himself, but also for his team.

“Zane has certainly matured and taken multiple steps forward this year with regards to his play on the ice and his leadership off the ice,” Sweeney said. “He approached this year with the mindset to grab the starting role and lead his team to a potential championship. Setting those lofty expectations was important for Zane because it allowed him to stay focused and to use his time away from the ice much more effectively.”

“He also battled through some injuries this season where his mental toughness was also challenged. We all saw Zane take a very proactive approach to leading at last year's development camp and we felt he was well prepared to take that back to North Dakota.”

For UND, reaching the Frozen Four this year wasn’t easy, which speaks even more to Gothberg’s leadership and skill. North Dakota claimed an at-large berth after going 24-15-3 during the regular season, entering the tournament as the fourth seed in the Midwest region.

First, North Dakota knocked off top-seeded Wisconsin 5-2 in the regional semifinals. Then came second-seeded Ferris State, and that’s when the pressure kicked in.

In the regional final, Gothberg fended off an offensive onslaught, making 44 saves and withstanding two overtimes to lead UND to a 2-1 victory and its 20th trip to the Frozen Four.

To him, the key to getting that W wasn’t even about withstanding pressure. It was simply about doing what he loves doing: playing hockey and protecting his net.

“It was fun — to have that opportunity to make it to the Frozen Four, and to be a key to our team’s success as a goaltender … I think it’s pretty special to have that opportunity,” he said. “So we were just going out there, playing hockey and having fun because at the end of the day, it’s the love of the sport, and the competitiveness and stuff just kind of takes over. So basically, I just went out there and played hockey and tried to do my best.”

“We believe that Zane's confidence has grown a lot this year,” Sweeney said. “His ability to shrug things off when they don't go his way and rebound from disappointment has been a real strength and a key part in his successful season. Zane has a nice blend of being highly competitive, while also being a little self-deprecating. His teammates, and people in general, are quick to learn how infectious Zane's personality is and how he enjoys living in the moment while trying to win at all costs.”

Echoing those sentiments was Gothberg’s teammate, forward Connor Gaarder, who told the press after the big win over Ferris State that Gothberg is “the backbone of the team.” It is a notion that flatters Gothberg but also one he is reluctant to accept.

“Hockey is obviously a team sport, and you know what? We couldn’t do it without each other,” he said. “It’s just the hard plays on the walls that the forwards make to get the puck out, or defensemen blocking shots and clearing out guys out front so I’ll be able to see the puck — it’s a full effort from everybody on our roster throughout the week, throughout the practices, and especially throughout the games.”

“So tip of the hat obviously goes to my defensemen and the forwards for helping me out, and I couldn’t do it without them.”

The team-first mentality is not a foreign concept to Bruins fans; it’s a concept that perfectly characterizes the current club, from top to bottom. In terms of understanding what the Bruins are all about and what kind of player he needs to be in order to succeed with the Black and Gold, it seems that Gothberg is already there.

When asked what his team needs to do to come out of the Frozen Four with another title, Gothberg answered with yet another familiar Bruins tenet: play our game.

“[We have] to know our strengths as a team, as individuals, and know our roles and play to our best abilities,” he said. “I think we’re a hard-nosed group of guys. We bring our work pails and our lunch boxes to work every day, and in order to be successful, we need to have everybody on the roster ready to go at 100 percent.”

If Gothberg and North Dakota advance to the national championship game, he could run into a familiar face: fellow Bruins prospect Ryan Fitzgerald, whose BC Eagles are playing in the other national semifinal game.

Fitzgerald grew up with hockey in his blood: His father, Tom Fitzgerald, played in the NHL for 17 years and retired as a Boston Bruin. One of his cousins, Jimmy Hayes, is a former BC Eagle and a current member of the Florida Panthers. Another cousin, Kevin Hayes, is his teammate in Chestnut Hill.

It’s no surprise, then, that Fitzgerald would continue the family tradition.

“Ryan has responded well to the pressures that are associated with being an integral part of a highly successful program,” Sweeney said. “We believe his parents have nurtured Ryan to be highly competitive but also very respectful of the process and ebbs and flows of a hockey season. He is a focused and driven kid who has been around pro hockey his entire life, so he understands how dedicated you have to be and that success does not come without hard work.”

Less than a year ago, Fitzgerald was selected by the Bruins in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Since then, he has attended his first Bruins Development Camp and has emerged as an critical component of a Boston College team that finished first in the Hockey East standings and won 28 games.

He also won his first Beanpot and is about to partake in his first NCAA Frozen Four, where he and the Eagles will take on Union in the national semifinals.

It has been a big year for the 19-year-old freshman, but given his pedigree, he’s been able to take it in stride.

“You could say I grew up a little different than most hockey players,” Fitzgerald said. “I had a lot of good guys giving me advice, like my dad and my uncles, so it was definitely pretty easy to soak up everything that they accomplished.”

Being drafted by the Bruins is the icing on the cake for Fitzgerald, a life-long fan of the Black & Gold.

“My dad’s from here — he retired a Bruin. I grew up watching them, and I went to his games, so being from here is one thing, but being able to be drafted and be a part of the organization is real special for me,” he said.

A native of North Reading, Mass., Fitzgerald emerged as a star at Malden Catholic High School, where he won two consecutive Super 8 titles and was twice the team’s second-leading scorer. He left after his junior year to spend a season with the Valley Junior Warriors of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, where he posted 14 goals and 16 assists in 26 games. That season, he was also crowned MVP of the 2012 All-American Prospects Game.

After the Bruins selected him in the draft, he set off for Chestnut Hill, where he played 39 games this season, tallying 12 goals and 16 assists for 28 points with a plus-9 rating.

“It’s been a pretty smooth transition,” Fitzgerald said. “I have a lot of guys to look up to like Kevin Hayes, Bill Arnold, Johnny Gaudreau, so looking up to those guys, it makes it pretty easy to come right in and be effective.”

“Our freshman class is great, and we’ve had a lot of guys who have played key roles, so to come in and contribute right away is something special.”

Fitzgerald has done more than contribute — he helped lead the Eagles to victory at one of the most critical junctures of the season. Facing UMass Lowell in the Northeast regional finals, Fitzpatrick scored the game-tying goal in an eventual 4-3 win, which propelled the Eagles to the Frozen Four.

“Ryan has played in several different roles this year and he has adapted well to the challenges associated with being a young player on a talented team,” Sweeney said. “Ryan processes the game very well, so despite not being one of the bigger players on the ice, he plays to his strengths and he embraces the opportunity to play on a top line with power play time or in an energy role and on the penalty kill.”

BC is now in search of its fourth national title in seven seasons, and Fitzgerald said that this team has been able to achieve so much success so consistently because everyone on the team demands excellence — something that is frequently stressed in the Bruins’ dressing room.

“Seeing the upperclassmen and what they expect day in and day out, I feel like it’s second to none in college sports,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, they expect to win every year. We expect to win a national title every year, and it’s not going to happen every time, but it’s mostly just to expect that and to know what we have to do to win. It’s something special.”

When his freshman season is over and done with, Fitzgerald will return to development camp, joining Gothberg and the rest of his fellow Bruins prospects. Coming out of camp last year, he knew he had to work on his strength and speed, and he will continue to target that as an area of improvement heading into this summer.

“I’ll hit the gym a little more,” he said with a smile. “Try to get a little stronger.”

At the moment, Fitzgerald may be focused on helping the Eagles win, but he has been keeping a close eye on the Bruins and said it’s encouraging to see the likes of Torey Krug, Reilly Smith and Matt Bartkowski — all former college standouts — achieving so much success with the Black & Gold.

“It’s definitely something good, seeing all the college guys who have come in and had an impact,” he said. “I think the Bruins want to see me develop, so getting those college years under my belt will definitely help me in the future.”

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