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Hockey

Hoonhout: Irish need to overcome consistency issues in season’s closing weeks

| Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Last Friday, the Irish hosted then-No. 12 Vermont in the opening game of a crucial Hockey East series.

With the season winding down and then-No. 17 Notre Dame right on the cusp of a top-16 NCAA berth, a loss would have been a crippling blow to the team’s playoff chances, and the Irish (15-9-4, 8-5-3 Hockey East) came out like they knew it. Two first-period goals from sophomore forward Andrew Oglevie and junior forward Bo Brauer pushed Notre Dame in front 2-0, and the Irish looked to be in firm control of a game they couldn’t afford to lose.

Irish sophomore forward Andrew Oglevie fights for control of the puck during Notre Dame’s 2-2 tie with New Hampshire on Jan. 20.Kathleen Donahue | The Observer

Irish sophomore forward Andrew Oglevie fights for control of the puck during Notre Dame’s 2-2 tie with New Hampshire on Jan. 20.

But as the game went on, the Irish offense struggled to add to the lead, and Vermont started to look dangerous. A late second-period goal for the Catamounts (16-9-3, 8-6-2) shrunk the lead to 2-1, and in the third, three successive Vermont goals pushed what had been an Irish lead to a sudden 4-2 deficit. It looked to be a disastrous turnaround at the time, but Notre Dame did not go down quietly. The Irish scored two goals in the final 3:10 of regulation to send the game to overtime, but once again failed to capitalize on the momentum, and the game ended in a 4-4 tie.

This is a great example of what has been plaguing Notre Dame all year. While they may be cardiac kings, the Irish had a chance to pull out a huge win against a Hockey East opponent — especially as the race for postseason seeding heats up. Yet they blew an early two-goal lead and had to battle back to get a result. This team has the mental toughness to grind out results when it needs to, especially as the Irish have come back to win or tie in nine games this year.

And, following Friday’s near shocker, the Irish dominated Vermont in a 4-1 win to leapfrog them in the conference standings. But the lack of consistency has plagued this team all year, and with the postseason and some tough opponents coming up, it is questionable whether or not Irish can find it within themselves to start stringing results together.

On the whole, this season has been a roller coaster ride for Notre Dame. The Irish have been ranked as high as No. 3, but an up-and-down four months has resulted in the Irish being most recently ranked No. 16, just barely good enough for the final spot in the NCAA tournament’s 16-team field. Now, there is still hockey to play, including a final Hockey East tournament for Notre Dame before it moves to the Big Ten next season. Still, at its current record of 15-9-4 — including a 8-5-3 conference mark — the team has struggled to sweep opponents.

Sure, there is no team in the Hockey East that is an easy win. But as the Irish have gone 1-1 against teams such as UConn, Merrimack and UMass — who sit seventh, ninth and last in the conference, respectively — those are games, on paper at least, that Notre Dame should be using to pile up wins.

Notre Dame’s best performance of the year has undeniably been a 3-2 comeback home win against then-No. 3 Boston College. Despite going down 2-0 early, the Irish stuck with it, and star junior forward Anders Bjork was instrumental in leading the Irish to three straight goals and a convincing win. It was Boston College’s first Hockey East loss and a huge team win for Notre Dame.

Irish junior forward Anders Bjork surveys the ice during Notre Dame’s 2-2 overtime tie with New Hampshire on Jan. 20.Kathleen Donahue | The Observer

Irish junior forward Anders Bjork surveys the ice during Notre Dame’s 2-2 overtime tie with New Hampshire on Jan. 20.

The Irish can certainly play with the Eagles, but the games in between have been constant pitfalls this season. Boston College, on the other hand, has been able to sweep most of the other teams it has played, and that’s why the Eagles are first in the conference. While Irish head coach Jeff Jackson has talked throughout the season about the Irish finding their groove, the team has yet to do it, and now it’s crunch time.

The Irish have three Hockey East opponents left to close out the regular season: 11th-place Maine, fifth-place Providence, and second-place Boston University. While it’s unlikely the Irish can sweep all six games, they’ll start the challenge with Maine first, and the matchup poses a huge test.

All season, Notre Dame has played competitive hockey with the Boston Colleges and the Minnesota Duluths of the world — teams of high caliber that pose a real challenge — and the matchups with the Friars and the Terriers should result in exciting, fast-paced hockey. But against teams like Maine, who are nowhere near the same level as the Irish on paper, Notre Dame has struggled to dominate. Thus, pockets of great performances have been separated by up-and-down Irish streaks. If the the team can finally be consistent against the Maines of college hockey — opponents that it is supposed to beat — it might be able to string some results together, start playing consistent hockey and racking up wins.

And at this time of year, wins are all that matter.

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

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby is a junior PLS/Economics double major from Smithtown, New York.

Contact Tobias