Irish set sights to Hockey East title
Alex Carson | Thursday, March 20, 2014
No. 10 Notre Dame has the opportunity this weekend in Boston to do what no team has ever done — win the Hockey East tournament after finishing outside the top four teams during the regular season.
The Irish (23-13-3, 9-9-2) finished the regular season eighth out of the conference’s 11 teams and became the first team to knock out the top-seeded team in the quarterfinals since Vermont defeated New Hampshire in 2010. However, Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said he does not put much weight on seeds going into the weekend.
“At this point, [the seed] doesn’t matter any more,” Jackson said. “We’re playing in the [Hockey East] championships, and that’s all that really matters.”
Jackson — and Notre Dame — is far more concerned about getting past No. 7 Massachusetts-Lowell on Friday night, a team that swept the Irish at the Tsongas Center on Nov. 22-23. Jackson said part of the team’s issues earlier in the season was an inability to put the same lineup out on the ice every night due to injuries.
“I think we were always capable [of playing as well as we are now] but we never had an opportunity to have any continuity in our lineup,” Jackson said. “Once we got some continuity, things started to get better.”
When the Irish met Massachusetts-Lowell (23-10-4, 11-6-3) in November, they fired 75 shots at Riverhawks sophomore goaltender Connor Hellebuyck but only managed to get one goal past the national leader in goals against average (1.87).
“We’re going to have to find a way to generate offense against a very good goaltender and a good defensive team,” Jackson said.
While Hellebuyck sits at the top of the heap defensively, Irish senior goaltender Steven Summerhays ranks fourth in goals against average, allowing just 1.95 per game. Jackson said the teams are alike in other ways as well.
“They’ve got a really balanced lineup,” Jackson said. “They have three lines that are very good, so their depth of scoring is different from [Boston College]. It’s probably more similar to us. They’re similar to us in a lot of ways. They play a cycle game; they play a transition game; they’re good defensively; they’ve got good goaltending.”
The Irish enter the weekend as one of college hockey’s hottest teams, having posted an 8-1-1 record over their last 10 games including three road victories over former No. 1 Boston College. Irish senior defenseman Stephen Johns said that despite the team’s late-season surge, its work is not done.
“We still have a big job to do and there’s no reason not to be motivated to get two wins this weekend,” Johns said. “We’re trying to hang a banner and get a ring to get a championship with this group. We’re not satisfied, and there’s a bigger goal ahead.”
Irish senior forward Bryan Rust is tied for the team lead with 16 goals — including one in each of the last four games — and said that the team now understands the little details are what it takes to win games in the postseason.
“We’re a veteran team, we’ve learned how to win games,” Rust said. “We know what mistakes allow us to lose games and we’ve kind of been through it all. Little turnovers and the blocked shots. You’ve got to bear down on your scoring chances.”
If the Irish get past Lowell in tonight’s semifinal game, they would advance to the Hockey East championship game Saturday against the winner of the second semifinal between No. 9 Providence and No. 18 New Hampshire. The Irish took a win and a tie from a visit to Providence (21-9-6, 11-7-2) in Feb., but were swept on a visit to New Hampshire on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
Notre Dame also has the rare opportunity this weekend to win consecutive conference tournament championships in two different leagues. The Irish took home the Central Collegiate Hockey Association crown last year before making the move to Hockey East this year after the CCHA was dissolved.
Freshman center Vince Hinostroza — who sits second on the team in points (32) and assists (24) — was named to the conference all-rookie team by Hockey East on Wednesday and said that making the team was the realization of a preseason goal.
“Coming into the year you have goals and one of my goals was to be on the all-rookie team,” Hinostroza said. “Throughout the year, you always try your best and you don’t really think about that goal, but at the end of the year, it’s nice to be rewarded with that.”
The puck is slated to drop for tonight’s game with Massachusetts-Lowell at 5 p.m., at TD Garden in Boston, and Saturday’s championship is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start.