Notre Dame’s philosophy on defense is fairly simple. If the Irish have the puck, the other team can’t score.
Irish sophomore Robbie Russo scored two goals and two assists in a sweep of Michigan last week.
Head coach Jeff Jackson has preached puck possession defense to his teams since he came to South Bend seven years ago. The message is sinking in this season.
No. 6 Notre Dame ends a treacherous stretch against top ten teams this weekend with a pair of games against No. 7 North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux are the third top flight offense the Irish will face in an as many weeks. Yet they enter the two-game series with the second best defense in the nation. Junior goalie Steven Summerhays and his defense are allowing only 1.64 goals per game during their 8-3 start to the year.
“If you control the puck from the defensive standpoint you control the game,” junior defenseman Stephen Johns said. “We want to dictate how we play to other teams and not to the play their level.”
When the Irish are too quick to chip the puck away, they’ve struggled this season. But more often than not, they’ve been able to control the pace of the game and keep opponents from racking up scoring opportunities.
Last weekend the Irish held a powerful and speed-driven Michigan team to one goal per game in their first sweep of the Wolverines in more than three decades. Michigan didn’t crack 30 shots on goal in either contest. A week earlier the Irish played unanimous No. 1 Boston College in Boston. They fell asleep for a 10-minute stretch in the second period and BC made them pay with a 3-1 loss, proving why they are the team to beat this year.
“There’s definitely a correlation between how much we control the puck in the defensive zone and how much we control the pressure of the game,” Johns said.
North Dakota brings the same type of firepower to South Bend this weekend. The Sioux average 3.2 goals per game as a team and traditionally, like Boston College and Michigan, play a style of game that looks like football’s spread offense on ice. They use top-notch talent to provide enough speed and puck movement to overwhelm opponents.
It’s a style that Jackson has tried to bring to Notre Dame as he continues to upgrade the talent level each season. This year’s team has the ability to apply plenty of pressure, but they’re at their best when that pressure gains momentum in the defensive zone.
“When we’re playing these fast teams the way to catch them is if they’re flying we’ve got to get them back on transition. When we possess the puck we can do that,” said sophomore defense Robbie Russo.
Russo scored a pair of goals and added a pair of assists at Yost Arena last weekend to spark Notre Dame’s offense against the Wolverines. He and Johns are currently tied for third on the team in points scored despite playing from the blue line. Russo has four goals and three assists. All seven of Johns’ points have come on assists.
The sophomore from Westmont, Ill. established himself as a threat to score on the power play from the point during his rookie season. This year he’s made a point to shoot to score more often during the first six weeks of the season.
“I’m doing that a little bit more instead of just shooting for rebounds,” he said. “I think when you have that open area you just see it’s just kind of instinct and when you see it you take it.”
He and the Irish will be taking aim starting at 7:35 Friday night. Saturday’s game is scheduled to begin at 5:05.