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Hockey Commentary: New influx of freshman talent to help lead Irish

Sam Werner | Friday, October 8, 2010

One of the most tried and true sports clichés is that each new season comes with a fresh start — that last season is in the past.

For Notre Dame this season, its slate is cleaner than a freshly-Zambonied sheet of ice.

Almost half of the Irish lineup will likely be composed of freshmen this season, all of whom will be hoping to make a name for themselves at a Division I level.

Most teams this young would be looking at a rebuilding year, but in Notre Dame’s unique situation, a team full of fresh faces is exactly what the program needs.

To put it lightly, last year did not go as planned. The Irish entered the season with legitimate national championship expectations but finished ninth in the CCHA and slinked out of the conference tournament in a first-round loss to Ohio State.

But, as the cliché goes, last season is over, and most of the players on this Irish roster have no recollection of last year’s disappointments. Most of the freshmen that will see ice time this season played on successful juniors teams. They’re conditioned to winning.

Of course, the Irish will need their upperclassmen to contribute as well. Three of Notre Dame’s five leading scorers from last season are returning, and senior defenseman Joe Lavin will provide strong leadership on the blueline. It’s telling that Lavin, who only played in the spring semester last season after transferring, was a unanimous selection by his teammates to captain the Irish this season.

For his part, Irish coach Jeff Jackson seems to have accurately identified the problems, tactically and mentally, that plagued Notre Dame last season. He’s talked in the off-season about a sense of entitlement that pervaded the team, not completely shocking for a team that had been consistently ranked in the top five.

Again, though, that’s exactly where Notre Dame’s youth could come in handy. There’s no sense of entitlement among these freshmen; they have no previous national championship game appearance to fall back on. Most of this team has a completely blank page, upon which they will write their Notre Dame legacy.

Strategically, Jackson has talked about the need to instill more grit on his team. While Notre Dame certainly has a talented roster, they’re probably still too inexperienced to beat teams on skill alone. Especially early in the season, Notre Dame is going to have to get comfortable winning games 1-0 or 2-1.

“Last year, I think we thought that we were going to be a really pretty team,” senior right wing Calle Ridderwall said. “I think a lot of guys thought we weren’t going to have to work hard or be gritty. I think we’ve established early in the season that we’re going to be a gritty team, a hardworking team.”

Granted, everything is just talk at this point. A 5-3 exhibition win over the University Guelph is nice, but Notre Dame will have to find its identity quickly against the big boys of college hockey. The Irish play national powers North Dakota, Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and either Boston University or Wisconsin before they even head home for Winter Break.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how Notre Dame will finish this season. The Irish are as talented as any team in the country and their coaching staff is second to none. A top four conference finish and an NCAA tournament berth are eminently achievable goals, even for a team with this many question marks. Of course, as we saw last season, that pendulum could swing in the other direction, too.

The biggest challenge will be making sure this young team reacts well to adversity. It’s easy to envision an early loss snowballing into a disappointing season, which is what appeared to happen last year. These freshmen, and the Notre Dame team as a whole, have a chance for redemption this season.

They just need to be ready to make their mark on a fresh sheet of ice.