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Hockey: First-year coach earns confidence of team, more victories

Kyle Cassily | Friday, May 19, 2006

Notre Dame earned eight more victories than its five-win 2004-05 season – finishing 13-19-4 after a 3-1 and 1-0 sweep at the hands of Alaska-Fairbanks in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, marking a distinct improvement in a one-year period.

Notre Dame compiled an 11-13-4 CCHA conference record – after winning just three conference games last season. The Irish secured home-ice advantage in the playoffs with the eighth best record in the CCHA.

Perhaps the most noticeable change for the Irish this season was behind the boards. Those men were first-year head coach Jeff Jackson, new associate head coach Paul Pooley, returning assistant coach Andy Slaggert and fresh-from-the-pros volunteer assistant coach Jim Montgomery.

“There’s not a better staff in college hockey,” Irish senior alternate captain Mike Walsh said. “There could be a comparison between [Jackson] and [Irish head football] coach [Charlie] Weis in commitment and being educated about the game and expecting a lot from his players.”

Jackson joined the Irish after stints with the New York Islanders and U.S. National Development Team – after a successful tenure with Notre Dame’s CCHA rival Lake Superior State, during which he won two Division-I national titles.

The Irish faced a tough early schedule in 2005-06, including a western road trip against two-time defending national champion Denver and nationally-ranked Colorado College. Notre Dame dropped those games 6-3 and 3-1, respectively, but got its first win of the year two games later against Princeton at the Joyce Center.

Walsh said the team’s first win was important as a boost for the younger players, but that the team really started to mesh with Jackson’s new systems a weekend later – against CCHA powerhouse Michigan.

“Even though we ended up losing both games, you can ask anybody – we dominated,” Walsh said of the 8-5 and 4-2 losses.

Irish senior Tim Wallace felt the team really started to roll in early January – the Irish collected a 7-6-3 record starting with a Jan. 6 series against Nebraska-Omaha and ending with the regular season series finale against Alaska-Fairbanks.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a specific series [that sparked a turnaround],” Wallace said. “Right after Christmas break everyone seemed to buy into their role and everyone was on the same page.”

A 4-3 win and a 5-2 loss against Northern Michigan two weekends later – the first time the Irish came from behind to win – gave Jackson a better view of his team’s progress.

“In general I think our players probably had time to go back and reflect over the break,” he said. “They responded in a positive way when they came back. They showed they could play with the top teams in the country.”

Despite the winning second-half record Notre Dame rode into the playoffs, it was not enough to earn a second round berth as the Irish lost to No. 9-seeeded Alaska-Fairbanks. The Irish challenged Nanooks goaltender Wylie Rogers, but ultimately could not finish. Rogers made 61 saves in two games and surrendered only one go.

After a season in which coaching staff and players spent time adjusting to one another, it is necessary to take a look towards the future.

The freshman class consists of eight players – one goalie, three defensemen and four forwards. A majority of the class verbally committed to the Irish prior to Jackson’s hiring in May of 2005.

Goalie Tom O’Brien (Mokena, Ill.) and defensemen Brett Blatchford (Temperance, Mich.), Stewart Carlin (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and Kyle Lawson (New Hudson, Mich.) will join Notre Dame.

O’Brien had a 2.93 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage for the Bridgewater Bandits of the EJHL last season.

The forwards are Kevin Deeth (Gig Harbor, Wash.), Dan Kissel (Streamwood, Ill.), Christian Minella (Aurora, Colo.) and Ryan Thang (Edina, Minn.).

Deeth played for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL last year and collected 54 points, scoring 20 goals and tallying 34 assists – the second most points on his team and good enough for 12th overall in the league.