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Hockey Commentary: Irish freshmen take charge

Sam Werner | Wednesday, February 2, 2011

There’s no question that this past weekend was a successful one for the Irish.

Notre Dame’s stellar freshman class led the way to a series split with No. 13 Miami (Ohio). The teams tied both games in regulation — 5-5 Friday and 2-2 Saturday — with the Redhawks taking the shootout point in the first game and the Irish claiming the extra point in the second.

Of the seven Irish goals scored on the weekend, five were netted by freshmen. After a weekend of going toe-to-toe with one of the top 15 teams in the country, the Irish had every reason to feel confident.

There is, however, still plenty of work to be done.

Miami is certainly a quality hockey team, but the Redhawks would be on the outside looking in on the NCAA tournament if the season ended today. The Irish would currently be in the field of 16, but plenty can change over the final six regular season games, not to mention the CCHA tournament.

The Irish are sitting in first place in the CCHA, but it’s a deceiving position to say the least. They’re only a point ahead of Michigan, and the Wolverines have two games in hand on the Irish. Michigan and Miami face off this weekend and one of those teams will certainly leapfrog the idle Irish into first place.

After the bye week, Notre Dame welcomes last-place Bowling Green to the Joyce Center and, to put it bluntly, the Irish need six points from their series with the Falcons. Bowling Green has only won three conference games this season, but one of them was a 3-2 victory over the Irish earlier this season. Notre Dame’s veteran leaders need to make sure this young team doesn’t lose focus after a bye week following an emotional series against the RedHawks.

Bowling Green doesn’t have a lot left to play for, so a possible win over the first-place team in the CCHA will certainly be enough motivation for them.

Six points against the Falcons becomes even more crucial because the Irish must head up to Big Rapids, Mich., the next weekend to take on Ferris State. The Bulldogs play a notoriously tough defensive system and always play well at home.

Following a home-and-home with Western Michigan, it’s possible the Irish will still have work to do in the conference tournament to secure an NCAA bid. Unlike recent years, the CCHA is having a relative down year, with only four teams in U.S. College Hockey Online’s top 25. The Irish won’t be able to rely on their strength of schedule to boost their tournament résumé this year, which, unlike in basketball, is done entirely mathematically.

To lock down that tournament bid, one of Notre Dame’s goaltenders needs to step up and claim the job. Both sophomore Mike Johnson and Steven Summerhays have looked good at times this season, but both have also struggled. One consistent feature of all of Notre Dame’s elite teams of the past has been a strong presence in net — recently Jordan Pearce or David Brown. That’s not saying either guy needs to stand on his head every game, but the Irish can’t afford to give up any six-goal games — as they did two weeks ago at Ohio State — down the stretch run.

More importantly, though, Notre Dame needs to play as if it’s not taking anything for granted. This team certainly has potential to make a run in the NCAA tournament, but it certainly won’t be handed to them. The most successful Irish team of my four years here came in 2008, when the Irish — who barely snuck into the NCAA tournament — became the first No. 4 seed to reach the national championship game.

There’s no reason Notre Dame can’t get back there this year.

Without a truly dominant team, college hockey’s championship race is wide open. While its fun to write about such lofty aspirations, the Irish veterans hopefully know this team can’t afford to look past the next practice.

The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu