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Fresh faces

Chris Allen | Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Out with the old, in with the new. The adage may sound tired, but to the Notre Dame hockey program it reads more like a description of its 2010-11 season.

The old: the 43-year-old Joyce Center where the Irish play is enjoying its final season of hockey. The new: nearly half of the team’s roster.

After a disappointing 13-17-8 mark in the 2009-10 season, a sweeping youth movement of 12 freshmen has the No. 9 Irish back among the country’s elite — and back in the hunt for the CCHA title.

“I think we expected them to produce but maybe not to this level,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “If I had to say that there’s a surprise, it’s that the whole class had this level of an impact on our team.”

Arguably the most notable of the newcomers wasn’t even expected to suit up for the Irish this season. In the lead-up to the 2010-11 season, both Jarred Tinordi and Kyle Palmieri were drafted in the NHL Draft and headed off to the pro ranks. The vacated roster spots of the two players opened up a place for signee T.J. Tynan, an immensely talented but undersized forward. Tynan — who is listed at 5-foot-8-inches and 156 pounds — was expected to spend a year or more in junior hockey to add some size to compete in the college game. The circumstances changed, and all Tynan has done since arriving on campus is become the most productive player on the Irish squad, leading the team with 35 points and 16 goals. The freshman’s teammates said they could not imagine this season without the late-minute addition.

“It’s unbelievable. To think that he wasn’t even going to come in this year is incredible,” senior center Ben Ryan said. “I think the only thing that would even hold him back at all is his size. I mean, that’s the only reason why he wasn’t going to come out right away. What he’s able to do at his size is incredible; it’s fun to watch. I’m happy he’s on our team so that I don’t have to go up against him.”

Tynan has overcome his small stature by overwhelming most CCHA foes with his incredibly skilled puck handling and keen vision on the ice. Shrewd play has enabled him to compete in a physical conference with opponents that have half a foot on him in height in some instances. Tynan’s productivity was rewarded recently when he was named to the Watch List for the Hobey Baker Award — college hockey’s highest individual honor — as Notre Dame’s representative.

“I’ve never seen anything like that. T.J.’s having an unbelievable year. I don’t think anyone was expecting it, really. It’s been really fun to watch,” senior wing Calle Ridderwall said. “He’s a playmaker —and a playmaker that knows how to score goals. That’s rare to find. Usually guys are either playmakers or goal-scorers. In T.J., you have both of them. He just sees plays very well. He’s really good mentally. When he’s in the hockey game, he can see how things will develop.”

Sharing the team lead in goals with Tynan is yet another freshman, wing Anders Lee. Lee has led the Notre Dame scoring attack as part of a group of freshman forwards that have supplemented the already-dangerous senior trio of Ryan, Ridderwall and Ryan Guentzel. The group includes Lee, Mike Voran, David Gerths, Jeff Costello and Bryan Rust. The contribution of the multitude of forwards has grown throughout the season, with all of the players seeing time on some of the top lines. Ridderwall said that despite their inexperience at the college level, the freshmen have brought physicality back to Notre Dame.

“Obviously, with Lee, he’s a big kid. Even though he’s a freshman, he’s bigger than a lot of the older guys. I think his physical play is helping around the net. It’s helping us score a lot of goals,” Ridderwall said. “Voran and Gerths are both physical guys. They can make plays, and then turn around and hit someone. I think the physical play those guys are bringing is huge. All of those freshman wings have offensive talent. I think it’s a good mix between power forwards and goal scorers.”

Getting defensive

While the arsenal of forwards has been busy disrupting the lives of opposing defenses, a fresh infusion of talent on the Irish defense has brought intimidation to the back line after the squad lost a number of talented defensemen, including Brett Blatchford, Ian Cole and Kyle Lawson. Leading the crop has been the towering 6-foot-4 Pennsylvania product Stephen Johns. Johns’ emergence as the “enforcer” on the Notre Dame back line is evidenced by his 78 penalty minutes — more than double the second-highest total. The feisty freshman’s punishing hits have no doubt made an impact in opposing training rooms so far this campaign, as more than the fair share of opposing forwards have been leveled by Johns. Senior defenseman and captain Joe Lavin said that Johns, along with fellow freshman defensemen Shayne Taker, Kevin Lind and Jared Beers, have brought intensity and hard work to his unit.

“They work hard. They’re hardworking guys,” Lavin said. “Their skill takes care of itself when they’re working hard. It’s just like anybody else. All the freshmen are really competing hard, all 12 of them. We really appreciate that. Johns and Taker are two big kids with big frames and a lot of skill, so that’s good for us.”

Rounding out the plethora of Irish freshmen are two goaltenders, Steven Summerhays and Joe Rogers. Though sophomore Mike Johnson has seen the lion’s share of the time in goal during the season, both players have elevated their game, with Summerhays seeing the occasional start. The freshman from Alaska has started five games to the tune of a 3.45 goals against average. Johnson said that his relationship with his freshman understudies has helped the goaltending unit improve as a whole.

“I definitely think I look at myself as a leader, but I think we have a very close relationship, the three of us,” Johnson said. “I think we’re more friends than I would say that I’m a leader. And I think that in practices, we all work hard, so that really pushes us to get better. They’re pushing me, I’m pushing them, so it’s a really good relationship.”

Feet on the ground

With the freshmen off to such a good start and the team enduring a level of success they haven’t experienced in nearly two years, the team leaders have worked to ensure that the group adjusts well to the success and doesn’t fall into complacency. The trio of Ridderwall, Ryan and Guentzel is no stranger to early success, as Notre Dame reached the national championship game in their freshman season with each player contributing on the team. Ridderwall said he believed early success was more of a positive development in building confidence than a dangerous pitfall.

“I think as a freshman it helps to have early success. A lot of our freshman got off to a good start, and building momentum early helps their confidence not only on the ice, but also away from the ice,” he said. “Sometimes people struggle coming to college when it comes to hockey and when it comes to all the stuff on the side.”

As the team heads into the final stretch of the regular season, one thing is clear regardless of the outcome of games against Miami, Bowling Green, Ferris State and Western Michigan — this class of freshmen is the perfect bridge between two eras of Irish hockey. While the program honors the past greats of the Joyce Center over the coming weekends, this group of 12 players stands as a testament to the future that lies a few hundred feet south in the new Compton Family Center. The speed of Tynan, the power of Lee and the physicality of Johns and Taker have announced to the rest of college hockey that after a brief slip-up, the Irish are back. All one needs to do is listen to Jeff Jackson to determine the ceiling for this class.

“They have a chance to bring this program a championship,” he said. “I think that if they stay together they have a chance to win a national championship at some point.”