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Hefferon: Jackson, team look to extend success past early season (Oct. 2)

Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It’s a long way to the top.

Whether you want to rock ‘n roll or, in Notre Dame’s case, make it back to the Frozen Four, being elite is determined over the long haul.

The Irish looked to have all the tools to complete the journey last year. The team was coming off a successful 2010-2011 season, and its giant freshman class looked poised to take another step forward as sophomores. On top of that, the program was surrounded by excitement about the team’s new digs (the gorgeous Compton Family Ice Arena) and conference (Hockey East). Wrap that all in a preseason No.1 ranking, and you got the high-octane energy, confidence and expectation that the Irish brought with them into the season.

Notre Dame rode that rush to a 9-2-2 start, which reached a climax in an electric overtime win against Boston College in the new arena.

But it didn’t last.

After that start, which Irish coach Jeff Jackson called “a sugar high”, the team sputtered to a 10-16-1 finish down the stretch – bowing out early in the CCHA tournament and missing the NCAAs entirely.

It was simply too much hockey for Notre Dame, a team that came out on fire, but by February was nothing but rundown smoke and ash.

This year, though, the Irish are settling in for a marathon. For Jackson, it’s not about bouncing back from last year’s lows or recreating the highs of two years ago. Peaks and valleys burn too much gas. Jackson’s buzzword during Monday’s media day was “consistency”, and it’s with that constant grade that Notre Dame hopes to climb back up towards a national championship.

The new arena and the new league are old news this year, and while the team never used them as excuses, they will definitely not miss the distractions they caused. Gone too are the expectations that accompany a top ranking, as the Irish enter this season as a more modest No. 10.

With a brutal non-conference schedule that features No. 1 BC, No. 2 Minnesota, and No. 4 North Dakota, the Irish may not jump out of the blocks to a hot start, but they’ll learn their weaknesses and improve along the way.

Having the experience of junior Steven Summerhays and senior Mike Johnson in the crease should shore up the back of the Irish lineup, and help ensure the team turns its one-goal leads into one-goal wins.

The team’s 12 juniors aren’t underclassmen anymore, and they’ll have new perspective after last year’s disappointment. Junior captain Anders Lee will move to center to help spur the offense, while physical presences like junior forward Jeff Costello and junior defenseman Stephen Johns will give Notre Dame some needed swagger and a well-rounded punch.

The season and the trying schedule will certainly be one full of ups and downs. The key for Jackson and his players will be to grind through, stay strong, and play their best hockey come spring.

It’s only a few hours’ drive from South Bend to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh. But this year, the Irish know that it takes six months to get there.