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Hockey: Irish defense leads the way

Dan Murphy | Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Notre Dame’s 27-6-3 record last season was no fluke.

This year’s team, which is now 7-4, proved that over the weekend when, for the second year in a row, it knocked out the nation’s best team.

In 2006, the Irish slaughtered Boston College 7-1 in Boston; this year they split a weekend series with No.1 Miami (OH). Going into the weekend, the well-oiled RedHawks looked as close to unbeatable as possible. The veteran squad reeled off blowout after blowout victory to bring a perfect 7-0 record into its contest with the Irish.

So far this season, the RedHawks have been led by an offense that averages more than five goals every time they lace up their skates. In two games against the Irish they managed to squeeze in a combined total of four – and that was with Miami returning its leading scorer from last year, Nathan Davis. Arguably the most dangerous player in the country this year, Davis was held to one goal on the weekend.

Notre Dame’s defense, the staple of its success last season, was a huge question mark for the team coming into this fall.

The young group of blueliners is led by its only two seniors, Brock Sheahan and Dan VeNard. VeNard saw limited ice time last season due to injuries that plagued him early in the year. Last season, the team graduated three defensemen, two of whom signed professional contracts shortly after their college careers ended.

The Irish have had to regroup with a corps of younger, albeit talented defensemen. Freshmen Ted Ruth and Ian Cole were thrown into the mix immediately, and so far, both have answered the call as well as could be imagined. They are joined by sophomores Brett Blatchford and Kyle Lawson, who have already stepped into leadership roles and are building a bright future for a back line that has become a trademark for Jeff Jackson in South Bend.

A big part of Notre Dame’s success on the defensive end has been the goaltending of junior Jordan Pearce, who had a combined 64 saves against Davis and the rest of the RedHawks over the weekend. The Anchorage, Alaska native has been the most pleasant surprise of the year so far for the Irish. Pearce was expected to battle highly touted freshman Brad Phillips for time early in the season, but quickly took over the role as the No. 1 netminder. Pearce is currently second in the country in minutes played and has successfully replaced Dave Brown between the pipes.

Five of Notre Dame’s first 11 games have been against teams ranked in the top 15, with four of those against teams in the top five.

The daunting early schedule was hardly an easy start for a team that lost eight key players last season. The Irish have weathered the initial storm and survived in one piece. The team has matchups against defending national champion Michigan State, as well as against Michigan, Colorado College and Massachusetts. So the schedule isn’t getting any weaker.

But from here on out, things should only get better for the Irish as they continue to grow more comfortable playing with one another.