Jeff Jackson was happy with the overall lack of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ his team drew last Sunday at Soldier Field. As the final weeks of regular season play melt into the playoffs, the Irish and their head coach are hoping shorter highlight reels make for a longer finish.
Notre Dame's bench celebrates a goal during its Jan. 25 win over Ferris State.
No. 11 Notre Dame ground its way to the team’s first one-goal win in more than a month this past weekend against third-ranked Miami. The last time the Irish eked out a close victory was a 1-0 game against Michigan State on Jan. 11. They followed with a five-game losing streak that threatened to derail a second straight promising season. Instead of individual heroic efforts, this year’s group is returning to its previous successful form by doing less.
The Irish have a chance to finish righting the ship this weekend at Western Michigan against the second-place Broncos. Jackson says beating one of the country’s best defensive teams on the road will require skipping the sexy plays and settling for the smart ones.
“We want our guys to be creative and make plays, but when you get to this time of the year it’s real about making the smart play most of the time – the safe play,” he said. “It gets to the point where there are no more tomorrows. If you’re playing a little too risky, then you’re going to lose. It’s as simple as that.”
Keep it simple. That’s been the philosophy in Notre Dame’s locker room these past few weeks while the Irish steadily climbed out of the whole they dug in January. Last Sunday’s win in the program’s first outdoor game earned the team a bye in the first round of CCHA playoffs. Two wins this weekend would all but guarantee home ice advantage.
The inevitably slushy, bumpy ice at Soldier Field last weekend may have been a heaven-sent blessing for the Irish. Uncertain conditions forced two teams stocked with talented scorers to play a dump-and-chase style game, choosing function over form. It gave Notre Dame a chance to prove what it had been preaching.
“That game could have been what we needed to see that we can beat the best teams in the country when we play simple and we outwork them. I really hope that we learn from that,” senior defenseman Kevin Lind said. “God blessed us with the poor conditions of Soldier Field.”
Jackson said the importance of that game — one that kept his team in the hunt for the regular season CCHA title — played as much of a role in the team’s style of play as the choppy ice did. The stakes remain high and the atmosphere remains unfriendly this weekend against Western Michigan.
The Broncos currently sit one point ahead of Notre Dame in second place of the league standings. Like Miami, they got there by playing strong defense. Those teams make up two of the four schools in Div. I that allow on average less that two goals per game. Beating them typically takes a low-scoring, grinding effort.
It’s not easy to win close games at Lawson Arena. Western Michigan is 13-2-1 this season while playing in front of its well-known student section. The “Lawson Lunatics” are an intimidating enough bunch to make Jackson dance around the right words to describe their antics before landing on the diplomatic description of a loud “bandbox.”
“Our guys have got to understand,” Jackson said, “when we’re playing in tough venues and tough teams, and that’s all we’re going to face the rest of the way, simplicity sometimes is the best medicine.”