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Lorton: Irish must improve special teams to get back on track (Feb. 7)

Isaac Lorton | Thursday, February 7, 2013

The No. 12 Irish need this weekend’s series against Michigan more than Canada needs hockey. 

With eight regular season games remaining, Notre Dame (16-11-1, 12-7-1-1 CCHA) is in third place in the CCHA standings, six points behind Miami (OH) and five points behind second-place Western Michigan. Furthermore, the Irish are 16th in the PairWise Comparisons that determine the 11 teams, in addition to the five automatic conference bids, that will go to the NCAA tournament. 

Being on the bubble may not seem like a bad thing, but the problem is the Irish have been slipping. In the month of January, Notre Dame went 2-6-0 and dropped nine spots from No. 3 overall in the nation and dropped from atop the CCHA standings.  

The last time the Irish faced Michigan they went to Yost Arena and swept the Wolverines for the first time since 1978. It was the fourth time Michigan had been swept at home in program history. 

Results before break no longer matter. The Wolverines look to be on the upswing after defeating Michigan State on Friday and Saturday, and Notre Dame is trying to make its February not look like January, and especially not look like last year’s skid in the second half of the season. 

This season, though, is looking eerily similar to last season. 

Last year Notre Dame went 13-6-3 in the first half of the season.  In the final 18 games, the Irish scratched out a 6-12-0 record and finished the year at 19-18-3 and, to cap it off, did not make the NCAA tournament. 

This season the Irish jumped out to a 13-4-0 record with a six-game winning streak going into break. But they have gone 2-6-1 since returning from winter break. In CCHA play, Notre Dame was 9-1-0-0 for the first half but are now 12-7-1-1 overall. 

Well, what went wrong? And what do the Irish need to do to prevent missing the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year?

Special teams need to be addressed. Overall, Notre Dame only converts 16.9 percent of its power plays. That’s 29th in the nation. As for the penalty kill, the Irish killed 91.2 percent of the power plays they faced before the break, which was good for fifth overall. Since returning from break the Irish have dropped 10 spots and are tied for 15th overall at 84.7 percent.

The powerplay should be revamped with junior right wing Mike Voran returning to full strength after missing four games due to injuries sustained Jan. 15 against Bowling Green.  

The problems on special teams stem from problems on defense and in net. Before the break, junior goaltender Steven Summerhays had a .934 save percentage and a goals-against average of 1.56, good enough for 11th and fifth in the nation, respectively. Now, Summerhays has a save percentage of .913 and a goals-against average of 2.17. 

Against Ohio State on Friday, the Irish gave up four goals on nine Buckeye power plays. Three of the goals came after a five-minute major was called against Voran for hitting from behind. It was the first time in seven years the Irish gave up four power play goals. The last time it happened previously was against Michigan in 2005.

Yet there is some hope. Notre Dame rallied against the Buckeyes on Saturday and tied the score at one before the Irish gained the overtime win in a shootout. Irish coach Jeff Jackson saw something in Saturday’s hard-fought win.

“That wasn’t a shootout but us playing Irish hockey of old,” Jackson said. 

The Irish look to sweep Michigan for the second time this season when they take on the Wolverines at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Friday at 7:35 p.m. and Saturday at 7:05 p.m

Contact Isaac Lorton at ilorton@nd.edu                   

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.