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Hockey Commentary: Notre Dame looks to return to NCAA’s after first-round exit

Matt Gamber | Friday, October 9, 2009

It may seem a bit early for the start of the college hockey season, but tonight’s season opener against Alabama-Huntsville can’t come soon enough for No. 5 Notre Dame.

“[Our NCAA first-round exit last season] was good motivation in the offseason and preseason a little bit,” senior captain Ryan Thang said. “But once the puck drops Friday night we’ll kind of forget about it.”

When the Irish hit the ice tonight, there shouldn’t be any thought of the shocking first-round upset Bemidji State handed Jeff Jackson’s heavily favored squad in March. Notre Dame lost only two of its top 10 scorers from last year’s 31-win team, and while the Irish will surely miss Erik Condra and Christian Hanson, this group could be the most talented one in program history, between its accomplished veterans and difference-making youngsters.

Even with all Notre Dame’s talent, however, there very easily could be some growing pains and early bumps along the road.

No man on the ice is more important than the heavily armored one stationed between the pipes, and any time a team has to replace one of the nation’s best goaltenders, there will always a question mark. But junior starter Brad Phillips had the opportunity as freshman to watch Notre Dame’s transition from David Brown to Jordan Pearce take place and should be ready to replicate the success Pearce enjoyed in his two years as the Irish netminder.

It may not happen from Day 1, but Phillips has all the tools – athleticism, natural ability and a talented team in front of him – to become a rock-solid backstop for Notre Dame. In fact, there’s probably less concern about goalie turnover this year than there was two years ago, when the unknown Pearce had to battle the freshman Phillips for the starting gig for an Irish program that had just recently emerged as a national power.

With the winning culture Jackson and Co. have installed over the last few seasons with three straight NCAA Tournament berths, and with two veteran defensive pairings and a couple of established scoring lines in place, it won’t be about Phillips winning games early in the season. It will be more about Phillips developing the composure and confidence in October that he’ll need to keep the Irish alive in March and April.

What I’m most interested in is how Jackson will mix and match his veterans and rookies to create a balanced lineup. As we prognosticated on our Irish Insider Podcast last night (sorry, I hadn’t plugged it yet), it would seem that only one line is set, while Jackson will likely try different combinations, both in even-strength and man-up situations, in the early going to figure out what will click. Whether that happens immediately or instead takes some time will determine how Notre Dame looks this weekend.

In any case, this is a team with solid veteran leadership that knows how to deal with the grind of the longest season in college sports. While postseason aspirations are always on the minds of the nation’s top teams, the Irish know they have a long way to get there – five months, in fact.

Thang and classmates Kevin Deeth and Kyle Lawson, two of Notre Dame’s three alternate captains, have been looked at as leaders since their sophomore seasons, and with a slew of experienced juniors – particularly on the blue line, with Ian Cole and alternate captain Teddy Ruth – this is a team that will be able to bounce back in the even if it does struggle early.

That isn’t meant to take any importance away from this weekend’s series against Alabama-Huntsville or next weekend’s matchups with Providence leading up to a non-conference, top-five showdown at Boston University.

But considering last year’s team started 2-3 before rattling off a 20-game unbeaten streak that lasted 2-1/2 months, I don’t think anyone will be pushing the panic button if the Irish don’t look dominant on the ice tonight.

Contact Matt Gamber at mgamber@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.