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Hockey: Irish marred by recent inconsistent play

Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The No. 3 Irish got back in action with some fireworks on New Year’s Eve in a win over Boston University, but after a home-and-home sweep at the hands of No. 11/10 Western Michigan, they found themselves with more work to do in 2012.

Following its win over Ferris State on Dec. 10, Notre Dame (13-8-3, 8-5-3 CCHA) took a three-week break from competition while the team took final exams and enjoyed the holidays. They returned to the ice on New Year’s Eve to dismantle the Terriers, 5-2, and followed that performance up with a 2-1 victory in an exhibition against the Russian Red Stars.

A few days after that performance though, the entire program reeled at news of the passing of Charles “Lefty” Smith, the patriarch of Notre Dame hockey. Smith, the program’s founder and first head coach, had retired just three days earlier after 44 years of involvement with Notre Dame athletics.

Despite the shock, the Irish traveled to Minnesota as scheduled later in the week for a showdown with the top-five ranked Gophers. After the crowd of 10,242 observed a moment of silence for the late Notre Dame coach, they saw the Irish turn in an inspired performance and hold on for a 4-3 win.

“We were really excited obviously after playing [Boston University] well at home and going to Minnesota and playing against a really good hockey team there,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “I think we were playing really well coming out of that Minnesota game, and that was a huge step for us.”

Following that trio of nonconference wins, the Irish were riding high as they returned home to take on Western Michigan and return to CCHA play. The momentum appeared to carry into Friday’s matchup, as Notre Dame entered the third period with a 2-1 lead. But after a questionable call against the Irish, the Broncos evened the score on the powerplay, then scored the game winner just 14 seconds later.

“We’re still a young team and we still have to find a way to emotionally respond to those situations,” Jackson said. “It was a tough call, first of all. It wasn’t a great call. Then we gave up a powerplay goal, and we didn’t respond well to it.”

The Irish looked to salvage a series split the next night at Western Michigan, but had a tough time finding the net. The team went just one for eight on the powerplay, and was unable to force through a strength goal. Junior goaltender Mike Johnson’s 19 saves weren’t enough, as the Broncos staunch defense propelled them to the 3-1 victory.

“Yeah, [the struggles on the powerplay start to worry you], but we didn’t score playing five on five either,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to get a goal playing five on five. If you get one powerplay goal a night that’s not too bad, but you’ve got to score five on five too. Western Michigan has a great defense and great goaltending, and we just had a hard time penetrating that.”

After getting swept in a conference series for the first time since 2010, the Irish now sit in a tie for fifth place in the CCHA standings.

As the playoffs draw near, every weekend brings a key conference matchup with playoff seeding implications. With that in mind, Jackson and his squad are eager to right the ship when they host No. 10 Michigan this weekend.

“Every game right now is essential for us,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to get points. Our objective is to try and finish in the top of the standings so that we get a bye in the first round of the playoffs and put ourselves in position to get back to Detroit. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The Irish host the Wolverines in the Compton Family Arena at 7:35 p.m. on Friday.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu