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Hockey: Offense struggles in six break games

Matt Gamber | Wednesday, January 16, 2008

After posting a 2-3-1 mark during an up-and-down holiday break during which the No. 8 Irish failed to win consecutive games, Notre Dame saw its record fall to 18-7-1 and its ranking drop two spots.

Much of the blame for the sudden cold stretch can be attributed to its inability to score four or more goals in any of its games over break. Conversely, during a nine-game winning streak directly preceding the winter break, the Irish scored four or more goals eight times.

“I am concerned about [the lack of scoring], but I’m hoping we’ll get out of it sooner rather than later,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s better that it happens now rather than in March.”

Special teams play has emerged as a concern for the Irish, between a sputtering power-play unit mired in a 0-for-30 streak and a penalty-killing unit that has taken a dip as of late. Changes have been made, but consistency has become Jackson’s main priority.

“Changing things isn’t the answer anymore,” Jackson said. “You get to the point where you keep changing things, and it only magnifies the problem. It’s just a matter of putting the right chemistry set together.”

The Irish rode a nine-game winning streak heading into the Lightning College Hockey Classic in St. Petersburg, Fla., but fell 4-3 to Massachusetts, now ranked No. 10, in the tourney opener on Dec. 29. They defeated Rensselaer 3-1 the next day.

The Irish then traveled to Marquette, Mich., and took a split in a two-game set with Northern Michigan. After losing the first game 2-1 on Jan. 4., Notre Dame took game two the next day by the same margin before traveling to East Lansing, Mich., and falling to Michigan State 3-1 on Jan. 11.

In their first home game since a 5-0 thrashing of Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 1, the Irish finally returned to the Joyce Center of Jan. 13, playing then-No. 9 (and current No. 7) Michigan State to a 1-1 tie.

“We haven’t played our best hockey, that’s for sure,” said senior center Mark Van Guilder, whose 18 points (8 goals, 10 assists) are second on the team to Erik Condra’s 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists). “I think if we keep playing well defensively, the puck will start going in for us.”

The return of freshman defensemen Ian Cole from U.S. Junior competition and Teddy Ruth from injury, described by Jackson as “two of our best shots from the point, and two of our grittiest defensemen,” should help cure some of the team’s recent struggles, especially when it comes to the fatigue of their fellow defensemen.

As Cole and Ruth return, however, the Irish lost another emerging freshman in forward Robin Bergman. Bergman, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, has decided not to return to the University this semester, returning to his USHL team in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“It was a culmination of things for [Robin] – nothing negative,” Jackson said of the freshman who netted one goal and six assists in 20 games played. “It was all a little overwhelming for him: the academics, the schedule with hockey and training … it’s a pretty tough and demanding thing, and for freshmen, sometimes it’s a bit of a culture shock.”

Bergman could still potentially return to Notre Dame and the team, as defenseman Luke Lucyk did after leaving the school early last year for another season in juniors, but, as Jackson said, “it’s in [Bergman’s] hands.”

With No. 1 Michigan looming ahead this weekend, the Irish will need to rid themselves of their winter doldrums in a hurry if they hope to compete. The Wolverines will have home-ice advantage Friday before the two teams take center-stage at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Jackson says the Palace showcase will allow the Irish to “sell our game” to Michigan-based alumni and potential recruits alike, as well as affording current players the opportunity to play in a large, storied venue. It will also bring in additional revenue for the hockey program.

So while the Irish, who were 20-5-1 through 26 games a year ago, may not have the ideal record or the nation’s top-ranking (as they did last season) to show for their efforts thus far, a difficult schedule has already begun to prepare the team for its broader goals: tournament play.

“[Playing such a tough schedule] kind of gets to you a little bit, but I think it’s only going to make us better for the end of the season,” Van Guilder said. “When it comes down to it, you’re going to have to beat top-ranked teams in the CCHA playoffs.

“Last year, we may have peaked a little bit earlier, but I’d prefer playing our best hockey come tournament time, and there’s plenty of time to build toward the playoffs.”