Notre Dame will face its first unranked opponent in a month Friday night, which, given this team’s history, might be its biggest challenge of the young season.
Irish junior Anders Lee scored three goals and added an assist last weekend against No. 7 North Dakota.
The sixth-ranked Irish (9-4, 5-1) hunker down into conference play this weekend with a pair of home games against Lake Superior State (7-7, 4-4). These Lakers don’t have a name that resonates like Boston College, Michigan or North Dakota — the last three teams to line up against Notre Dame. The points, however, count just the same in what will likely once again be a race in the CCHA standings with little breathing room.
“They’re just as much of a threat as anybody we’ve played because that’s the way our league is,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson, who stood behind the Lake Superior bench for a decade during a previous coaching stop.
Last year’s Notre Dame team, a group dominated by underclassmen, struggled to bring the same level of intensity to their dog-day games as those against the marquee names of college hockey. The Irish followed emotional wins over Minnesota and Boston University with losses to cellar-dwelling Alaska and Bowling Green.
One more win would have moved Notre Dame two places higher (from eighth to sixth) in the final conference standings in February. Three extra wins would have earned them a first-round bye. Instead, the Irish lost to Michigan in the second round of the CCHA playoffs and missed the NCAA Tournament altogether after starting the year as the No.1 ranked team in the country.
The conference is showing itself to be just as closely contested this year. The top six teams, which include Notre Dame and Lake Superior State, are within four points of one another heading into the weekend. Before taking an extended midseason break, the Irish play five conference games that could end up being the difference in securing a bye, home ice or a higher seed at the end of the year.
“These points are going to be huge at the end of the season,” junior captain Anders Lee said. “We’re definitely a year older and more mature. We learned our lessons last year big time.”
Lee is averaging a point per game so far this season. The CCHA named him its offensive player of the week twice in November, most recently after scoring three goals and an assist in a two-game split with North Dakota last weekend. The question for Lee and his teammates remains how consistently they can play during the next two months.
He and senior defenseman Sam Calabrese agree that the team is doing a better job enjoying the present this time around. It’s a mentality that they hope will keep them from looking too far into the future.
“We kind of looked ahead and one thing happened and then another and before you knew it, it was kind of spiraling out of control," Calabrese said about the second-half drop off last season. "I think it’s just about day-by-day enjoying the process."
Lee said upperclassmen and coaches have amplified their communication lines this year and are finding ways to make it fun to show up to the rink each day. They play games inspired by the TV show ‘Minute to Win It’ in the locker room and compete on the ice during practice to stay loose and take their minds off the grinding conference schedule.
“These last couple weeks before finals, we’ve got long days, meetings left and right and you’re at the rink for a few hours,” Lee said. “If you can come to the rink and just forget about every thing else and have a good time then you’re going to be productive on the ice.”
Friday’s game is schedule to begin at 7:35 p.m. and Saturday’s at 7:05 p.m.
Sophomore forward Austin Wuthrich missed last Saturday’s 5-2 win over North Dakota after a high hit took him out of the game Friday night. He did not practice this week and is expected to miss both game this weekend.