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Hockey: Despite the loss, Irish team still on the rise

Chris Khorey | Monday, March 6, 2006

Right now, it hurts.

Right now, after such high hopes heading into the CCHA playoffs, it hurts to see the Irish handed two straight defeats by Alaska-Fairbanks and see their season end so abruptly.

It really hurts that Notre Dame will be sitting out the rest of the playoffs after controlling play Saturday night and peppering Nanook goalie Wylie Rogers with 39 shots.

Junior goalie Dave Brown’s leg literally hurts, after a hit Saturday night put him on crutches and sidelined him for most of the contest.

But in a few days, after the Irish look back at their season and at the vast improvements over last year, it won’t hurt as much. Because coach Jeff Jackson has this program headed in the right direction.

Jackson came to Notre Dame with an impressive resume, including two national championships as head coach of Lake Superior State. He inherited a program that was 5-27-6 last year, was riding a 19-game winless streak and whose leading returning scorer, defenseman Wes O’Neill, had accumulated just 20 points.

The new coach immediately took steps to reshape the programs image, first outfitting his squad with new golden helmets and then overhauling their attitude from scratch.

Notre Dame finished this season 13-19-4 and eighth in the CCHA, not a great record by any means, but much better than last year. The two playoff games against Fairbanks notwithstanding, the Irish finished their season on a strong note, ending the regular season with wins in four of their last six games.

Jackson instilled a new confidence in his team, which became more and more evident as the season moved along. From freshman Erik Condra scoring with nine seconds left against Minnesota State Dec. 6 to the team erasing a 4-1 deficit to beat Northern Michigan Jan. 21 to O’Neill and senior Tim Wallace struggling for one last shot as time expired against Fairbanks Saturday, the Irish showed a fight that had been missing for too long.

Scoring was way up, too, as the Irish had five players – junior Josh Sciba, sophomore Mark Van Guilder, Condra, Wallace, and O’Neill – produced over 20 points. Condra put up 34 points, including 28 assists. As a team, the Irish scored four or more goals eight times, including a nine-goal outburst against Bowling Green Nov. 11.

Jackson’s coaching also made an immediate impact on special teams. The Irish power play ranked at the top of the CCHA for most of the season. Notre Dame scored on 16.6 percent of its power plays, up from only 9.8 percent a year ago. The penalty kill also improved, bringing opposing power play scoring down from 20.7 percent to 18.9 percent.

The Irish also improved their consistency. Gone were the 10-1 defeats to Michigan and the seemingly endless losing streaks. Instead, Notre Dame was in every game it played. Their biggest margin of defeat was just three goals. Their longest winless streak was only five games, and that came very early in the season.

Brown was solid all season, giving up just 2.47 goals per game after stepping in for graduating starter Morgan Cey. Freshman Jordan Pearce proved a capable backup, appearing in nine games and earning his first career shutout against Princeton Oct. 28.

Do the Irish have a long way to go? Of course. This is still a sub-.500 team that finished in the bottom half of the CCHA and bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. But it is an improving team, and with young talent like Condra and Pearce coming through the pipeline and veterans like Brown, Sciba, and O’Neill returning for another year.

Even further into the future, Jackson is recruiting well and rumors of renovations to the Joyce Center may finally become concrete plans.

So, while the losses to Fairbanks hurt now, they will soon be a distant memory as Jackson leads Notre Dame hockey to national prominence. It may not happen next year or the year after, but the Irish program, which was in total disarray just a year ago, is in good hands.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Chris Khorey at ckhorey@nd.edu.