Hockey goals, often enough, have at least an element of accident — a puck ricochets the right way off a shin guard or a rebound lands on the right stick. Not necessarily the pretty ones that find their way into highlight reels, but the scrappy, ugly goals that pull teams out of a funk and win the games that matter most usually get a good bounce. And like driving a car, the majority of accidents occur close to home.
Freshman Thomas DiPauli tries to carve out space in front of the net against Alaska, which is a skill the Irish lacked during a 2-6 stretch in January.
The ten-foot hemisphere in front of a goal is precious real estate. The team that can controls that area on both ends of the ice will find itself in the winning column more often that not. During a 2-6 stretch in the month of January, Notre Dame struggled to own that space and missed its chance to create those happy accidents.
“We’ve been too perimeter-ish, which has led to not scoring a lot of goals,” head coach Jeff Jackson said. “In all situations we just have to be more intense at getting to the net.”
The Irish averaged only two goals per game in their recent skid, and five of the 16 total came in what they hope will be a momentum-spinning victory last Saturday night. This week Jackson’s team heads to Columbus for a pair of games against Ohio State in hopes of re-establishing a presence around the net.
Saturday’s 5-2 win over Ferris State showed a hint of improvement. Junior David Gerths scored the game’s first goal when he parked himself directly in front of the goal and deflected a slap shot from the blue line. T.J. Tynan finished the scoring by roofing a wrist shot from a foot outside the crease in the third period.
“We might’ve gotten a little too fancy at times, but I think that this weekend proved that we’re a grinding team and we’re going to score grinding goals like that,” Gerths said.
Confidence was high heading into January. Notre Dame had won eight of its last nine games and was ranked second in the nation.
Maybe that’s why the Irish thought they could get away with getting away from the middle of the ice. Maybe that drive to drive into the slot got lost during a three-week midseason break. Or perhaps it was adjusting to the defense-heavy CCHA league play after an early schedule dotted by teams built to win with offensive fireworks instead of sparks from the grindstone.
“I’m not sure why,” said Tynan, who leads the team in assists and is second in goals. “I think we definitely got a way from it a little bit, but I think we did a better job of it this weekend.”
His goal against Ferris State came at the end of a 5-on-3 power play, which is another unit that fell off in January. Tynan’s score ended an 0-for-16 drought with an extra attacker.
Notre Dame hopes to average a goal per game on the power play. Special teams came up short in January in part because they remained on the edges of the ice. They didn’t force pucks in front of the goal to open passing lanes and break down a defense. It won’t get any easier against the Buckeyes who have a top 10 penalty killing unit (86.5 percent) and one of the better goalies in the country in senior Brady Hjelle.
Hjelle is two-hundredths of a point away from owning the best save percentage in college hockey. He has helped Ohio State hang on to sixth place in the current conference standings, a weekend sweep away from passing the third place Notre Dame team.
Despite its rocky start to the second half, Notre Dame is well in control of its destiny heading into the final month of the regular season. The Irish are within three points of Miami and Western Michigan with two games against each of them still on the schedule.
Jackson is optimistic that his team is pointed in the right direction again offensively. He has stressed the importance on net presence in his slump-busting efforts in recent weeks. The keys, he says, are simple. To win in front of the net it takes effort and courage.
“The effort part of it [coaches] can control,” Jackson said. “The courage part we can not. They have to understand that for our team to be successful they have to make the effort to get to that area of the ice.”