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Hockey: Preseason No. 1 Irish miss out on NCAA tournament

Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Irish had everything during the 2011-12 season – a new arena, a conference change, a new television deal, a preseason No. 1 ranking – except an NCAA tournament bid.

A year after advancing to the Frozen Four, Notre Dame (19-18-3, 12-13-3-0 CCHA) failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations in a lackluster year highlighted by the opening of the Compton Family Ice Arena.

The Irish returned sophomore center T.J. Tynan and sophomore left wing Anders Lee to a squad that also had its top two goaltenders back for another year. Notre Dame, because of the wealth of players returning, was tabbed as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. Irish coach Jeff Jackson said the added burden could have contributed to the overall performance.

“The pressure they put on themselves certainly caused some issues from goaltending to goal-scoring,” Jackson said.

Notre Dame played just two regular season games in its old home – the Joyce Center – before moving to the new Compton Family Ice Arena. The Irish beat RPI 5-2 in the inaugural game at the facility behind Lee’s hat trick as a capacity crowd of 5,022 packed the arena.

“It was incredible,” Jackson said. “The amenities are one thing but the overall crowd in this building is great.”

The Irish won their first five games in the new building, capped by an exhilarating 3-2 overtime win over then-No. 3 Boston College highlighted by a goal from Irish sophomore right wing Bryan Rust with just 1.1 seconds remaining in the game.

The victory over the Eagles held a special meaning for many people in attendance as well. Dubbed the “Dedication Game,” many donors that made Compton Family Ice Arena possible were in the building.

Boston College went on to win the national championship in April, led by current New York Rangers rookie Chris Kreider.

“It just shows you the level of talent they had on their team,” Jackson said. “There’s a lot of great players in Boston College hockey and once they get the opportunity to show what they’re capable of, they’re great. Kreider was a tremendous player when he played against us and had a great career.

“It’s an indication of the level of college hockey but it also shows the talent level of Boston College.”

While the Irish were able to beat elite teams like Boston College, Boston University and Minnesota, they were unable to capture weekend sweeps of CCHA bottom-feeders Alaska and Bowling Green.

In a decisive two-week stretch in February, Notre Dame dropped five games in a row by a combined score of 21-4. The Irish dropped out of the top-16 teams in the PairWise rankings (that decide the NCAA tournament field) and made the rest of the season an uphill battle.

“We had a lot of different issues going on, some of it was goaltending, some of it was goal-scoring,” Jackson said. “I think that’s when the pressure of the expectations got to us.
“When we had a little adversity, we eventually got it but we had two or three game we could have won and those were the same games we were winning earlier in the year. We just have to focus on consistency if we’re going to be a great program.”

After disposing of former-No. 1 Ohio State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs with a two-game sweep, the Irish headed to Ann Arbor, Mich., to take on the Wolverines in the second round. Michigan and Notre Dame split the season series when the two teams played at Compton Family Ice Arena in late January.

In the first game, Irish sophomore goaltender Steven Summerhays – who took the starting job from junior goaltender Mike Johnson late in the season – stopped 40 Michigan shots during Notre Dame’s 2-1 double-overtime defeat. Summerhays saved 14 shots in the first overtime alone. Jackson said a different outcome in that game could have shifted their entire season.

“You never know,” Jackson said. “He played really well and their goaltender played really well too. It was a battle of goaltending. There were plenty of goal-scoring chances. One shot was probably the difference between our season being a good one or a bad one.”

The next night, the Irish could not rebound from the loss and dropped a 3-1 decision, ending their season.

Jackson said, despite the disappointing finish, one positive was the play of Summerhays.

“Based on the finish he had, he finished as our No. 1 guy so as long as he has a great summer, he’ll start as our No. 1 guy,” Jackson said. “We certainly know we have a [No.] 1A in Mike Johnson.”

While the Irish again return their top two netminders, they lose three key contributors in senior defenseman Sean Lorenz, senior center Billy Maday and junior center Riley Sheahan. Lorenz will graduate this May and has already signed a deal with the Houston Aeros, an affiliate of the Minnesota Wild. Sheahan decided to forgo his senior season and sign a contract with the Detroit Red Wings.

Jackson said replacing the trio next year will be difficult.

“You don’t replace them, you have to hope some younger guys step up and fill roles,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a number of sophomores all with the potential to move forward and hopefully have a really consistent and healthy year out of [sophomore left wing] Jeff Costello and [junior left wing] Nick Larson.”

Even before the first puck was dropped, the Irish made news by announcing their intentions to move to Hockey East in 2013-14 after spending 13 years in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA). Due to the conference switch, the Irish will now have more games televised on the NBC Sports Network.

The Irish will join perennial powers Boston College and Boston University after spending one more season in the CCHA. Irish coach Jeff Jackson said he hopes the final season is a good one for the CCHA.

“Hopefully, it’s a celebration of a great conference,” Jackson said. “A lot of great players, great coaches have been part of this conference for the last I don’t know how many years. It’s kind of sad to see it happen.”

Last year, the CCHA placed five teams in the 16-team NCAA tournament field and Jackson said next season should be more of the same.

“I think, just like this past year, the conference will be as strong as it’s ever been, maybe even stronger than this past year,” Jackson said. “It’s a real tribute to the schools in this conference.”

Next year, the Irish will welcome in a highly-touted freshman class to complement their talented roster.

“I have high expectations for us every year and next year will be no different,” Jackson said. “We need to improve our game. I think we need to be better defensively and get better in transition. We need to do the little things like getting pucks to the net. We need to keep the game simple and just focus on the details. We have the talent to be a very good hockey team.”

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu