Hockey: ND hungry after early tourney exit
Sam Werner | Saturday, August 22, 2009
As the prominence of the Notre Dame hockey program has grown over the past few years, so too have the expectations. Those lofty standards came crashing back down on the Irish last spring in a 5-1 upset loss to Bemidji State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We had a great season, and I don’t want to take away from that,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “But the last game of the year, we weren’t the same team that we were for the majority of the season.”
Notre Dame rose as high as No. 1 in the national rankings last year, and claimed both the CCHA regular season and clayoff Championships, earning the latter with a 5-2 come-from-behind victory over Michigan at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Jackson said the Bemidji State loss has stuck with him over the off-season, and expected it had with his players as well. Even though NCAA regulations prohibit much contact between coaches and players over the summer, Jackson said he trusted in his team’s work ethic.
“They’re a pretty focused group,” Jackson said. “And I’ll be pretty surprised if they weren’t working hard.”
The biggest question mark heading into the new season will be between the pipes, just as it was two years ago. Going into the 2007-08 campaign, then-junior Jordan Pearce beat out then-sophomore Tom O’Brien and the highly touted then-freshman Brad Phillips. Pearce went on to become one of most decorated netminders in Irish history, setting program records in single-season wins and shutouts as well as career wins.
Jackson said Phillips, who missed all of last season because of a leg injury, would be the starter this season with O’Brien and freshman Mike Johnson serving as suitable back-ups.
“Jordan Pearce, when he got his first opportunity he never looked back, and we hope that Brad can do the same thing,” Jackson said. “That’s going to be the biggest question mark going into the season, but I have full confidence that Brad can take the similar type of step that Jordan took.”
As far as Phillips’ injury goes, Jackson said he expected Phillips to be fully recovered from the surgery, which was done last October. Phillips returned to the ice last spring for some light practice just before the NCAA Tournament.
“He looked pretty good for a guy that hadn’t played or practiced all year,” Jackson said. “The biggest thing for Brad is going to be his mental approach to the game.”
In addition to Pearce, the Irish also have to replace seniors Erik Condra, Christian Hanson, Garrett Regan and Justin White. Jackson said he expected the current senior class, specifically players like Ryan Thang and Kyle Lawson, to take on a larger role.
Rounding out the roster will be the six-man freshman class of forwards Kevin Nugent, Nick Larson, Kyle Palmieri and Riley Sheahan, defenseman Sam Calabrese, and Johnson.
Jackson said Palmieri, selected 26th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft by Anaheim, and Sheahan, second cousin of former Irish player Brock Sheahan, have the best chance to contribute immediately, though he expects all the freshmen to leave their mark eventually.
“There’s no question that Kyle Palmieri is going to be ready to play right away, and I hope that Riley Sheahan will as well,” Jackson said.
Notre Dame will need contributions from across the board if they expect to successfully navigate a conference schedule that includes four games each against rivals Michigan and Michigan State and two against last year’s national runner-up Miami (Ohio). Outside of CCHA player, Notre Dame has a home game against perennial power Boston College, a potential match-up against North Dakota in the midseason Shillelagh Tournament in Chicago, and, to top it all off, a fall break trip to Boston to play defending national champion Boston University.
“I don’t want to go through the season without having some bumps in the road so that your team gets better and knows how to play teams of that caliber,” Jackson said.
The agreement with Boston University stipulates that the Terriers will play a return game in South Bend in 2011, Notre Dame’s first season in the new Lefty Smith Ice Rink, which will break ground this spring.
“There’s motivation to prepare our team, but there’s also motivation to bring teams into our building as well,” Jackson said.
The Irish open their season with a non-conference two-game series against Alabama-Huntsville on Oct. 9 and 10 in the Joyce Center.
-The CCHA voted on Aug. 11 to deny admission to Alabama-Huntville. The Chargers currently play in the College Hockey Association, a four-team conference that is set to disband after the 2009-10 season. The CCHA will be dropping to 11 teams after this season, as Nebraska-Omaha will be joining the WCHA.
“We certainly didn’t do it out of disrespect for Alabama-Huntsville,” Jackson said. “We were just more worried about the members of our conference and making sure our league is in full health for the future. It’s disappointing and I hate to see that happen, but it is based on a lot of different reasons.”