The distractions from a year ago are all but gone for the Irish hockey team. Their new rink is broken in, conference questions are settled and the heavy No. 1 ranking that hung around their necks last fall has been removed. The path is cleared for another bounce back year for Jeff Jackson’s boys.
Notre Dame celebrates after beating Boston College in overtime last November, a high point of the 2011-12 season.
Notre Dame starts their season on Sunday ranked 14th and 10th in the two major college hockey polls. After a disappointing 19-18-3 record left them watching the NCAA Tournament in South Bend last season, the Irish are suddenly a veteran group with something to prove.
“I think it’s going to be a lot easier for us. Last year there was a lot of stuff going on,” Jackson said Monday afternoon at the team’s official media day. “I mean it’s an excuse to say it was distractions, but the thing is that I think our emotions showed it in some ways. … The excitement level is going to be high regardless, but it won’t be to an emotional level that we have that sugar high and then we have the low.”
Jackson, entering his eighth season at Notre Dame, is hoping he finds a more consistent group when practice begins later this week led by the massive 11-man junior class. Last year’s teams lived up to its top billing at times, knocking out national contenders like Boston College at home and Minnesota on the road. They also went on backbreaking dry spells, including a five-game losing streak in February that all but killed their hopes of finishing the season on a high note.
The good news for Notre Dame is the Irish have a habit of outplaying expectations a year after not living up to them. The Irish made it to the Frozen Four in 2011 after a disappointing season the year before. The reached the national championship game in 2008 as a four seed a year after being bounced in the quarterfinals with the tournament's top ranking.
The Irish are loaded with goal-scoring potential. They were last year, too, but scored only four times during that five-game losing stretch. Mounting pressure made the net shrink during the second half of the season and a lack of collective locker room wisdom kept Notre Dame’s young team from finding a way to snap out of its funk. Junior Anders Lee, the team's lone captain, said he’s looking forward to the chance to change that this season.
“Some times you just need to have a talk or a chat, but this year it’s a little bit different,” he said. “I’m an upperclassmen now, and I am the captain so I guess that’s my job. I’m willing to take it on.”
Lee will slide from wing to center for the first time in his collegiate career, which breaks up the CCHA’s most dynamic duo from the past two seasons in Lee and classmate T.J. Tynan. They combined for 173 points while playing together for most of their freshmen and sophomore seasons.
That move gives the Irish a chance to develop a little bit more scoring depth across their lines and helps to replace Riley Sheahan, who passed up his senior year of school to sign with the Detroit Red Wings organization last spring. If Tynan and Lee remained on the same line, Notre Dame would likely have to rely on freshmen to log a lot of time at center to begin the season.
“It gives us a lot of experience up the middle. Then I’ve got the two young kids that could potentially play center of the third and fourth lines,” Jackson said.
The two youngsters are Thomas DiPauli and Steven Fogarty, both members of a highly-touted group of incoming forwards. The top prospect in Notre Dame’s class, winger Mario Lucia, will miss at least the first month of the season. He needed surgery to fix a foot injury he suffered just 30 minutes into his first collegiate skate. DiPauli, — who Jackson compared to the pesky, energetic Tynan — Fogarty and fellow freshman center Sam Herr will all get a chance to earn a spot in the lineup this season.
Summerhays’ net to lose
After finishing last season on a high note, junior Steven Summerhays heads into the season as Notre Dame’s definitive No. 1 option in goal.
Summerhays will have to hold off senior Mike Johnson, who split time in net last season, but can earn a regular starting role by playing well in the first month of the season. He ended the 2011-12 season with back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs followed by a strong performance while losing to Michigan in the CCHA quarterfinals.
“I think after playing well at the end of last year and finishing the season somewhat strong I think I showed this summer and the offseason that I was right there and I definitely could be the guy to play every game,” he said. “It pushed me harder to train this summer, even more than I had in the past.”
The Irish are set up once again to face one of the tougher schedules in the country with a particular tough stretch in the first full month of the season.
They start November against defending CCHA champs Western Michigan before playing out-of-conference powerhouses Boston College and North Dakota. In between, they’ll squeeze in a trip to play Michigan at Yost Arena. That’s three of the top four teams in the country, and Western Michigan isn’t far behind at No. 10 in the preseason USCHO.com poll.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Jackson said. “We’ll have our hands full, but I’d rather have it that way than playing down to our opponents. I’d rather try to play up to people that I know our guys are going to be motivated to play.”