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Hockey: Young squad starting to put it all together

Dan Murphy | Thursday, November 8, 2007

Leading a slew of young, inexperienced talent, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson is in his third year behind the bench for the Irish. His team lost eight seniors to graduation including a Hobey Baker finalist who was arguably the most valuable player in the country.

Sound eerily familiar?

The Irish are off to an inconsistent 6-3 start, but fans shouldn’t worry about this winter turning into this fall.

Last weekend, Notre Dame posted 11 goals in a two-game sweep of a weak Lake Superior State team. The Irish showed a killer instinct that had been lacking in the first few weeks and finally connected on the ice in both games.

Prior to those games, Notre Dame had given up 10 of its 17 goals in the final period. Three of those came in a 4-1 loss to No. 14 Wisconsin to open the season and two more in a disappointing 3-0 shutout to Ferris State.

Jackson said he felt the team starting to click after Friday night’s 4-1 victory over the Lakers. He said he hadn’t seen them play like that yet this season.

A lot of the change had to do with junior right wing Erik Condra moving to play with senior captain Mark Van Guilder and freshman Robin Bergman. Jackson moved freshman playmaker Ben Ryan into Condra’s spot alongside sharpshooters Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang. The move proved to be the spark the team needed. Condra had six points on the weekend (five on the first night alone), and Van Guilder added five of his own.

The Irish offense is rounded out with a dangerously quick third line and a bruiser line featuring the Christian Mercenaries – 6-foot-4 junior Christian Hanson and 215-pound sophomore Christiaan Minella.

Saturday’s game was also the debut for highly-touted freshman goaltender Brad Phillips. Phillips was rarely tested but was able to keep his focus and looked comfortable between the pipes.

Junior Jordan Pearce, who has played every other game in net for the Irish, has also done well replacing Dave Brown. Neither of the goalies bring the experience nor hockey smarts that last year’s CCHA MVP had, but keeping the puck out of the net has not been a problem.

The main inconsistencies on the ice have been with the man advantage. Notre Dame has shuffled through countless line-ups for the power play, but Jackson has still not settled on a No. 1 unit. They started red-hot with five power-play goals in their first three games, but hit a cold streak going 1-for-24 over the next three.

Success on special teams will be a key for the Irish as the young team gets used to playing with one another. If the power play can develop consistentcy and the penalty kill can continue at their strong pace (93.3 percent successfully killed thus far), the team should be able to stay on the list as a national contender.

This weekend Jackson and his team will get a reality check as they head to Oxford, Ohio, to take on No. 1 Miami. The RedHawks have sprinted through their first eight games without so much as a scratch on their perfect record. The match will be a measuring stick and an even better learning experience for a team that, Jackson believes, is starting to come around.