Season Recap: Seniors power Irish on late surge to NCAA berth
After a rocky start to Notre Dame’s inaugural season in the Hockey East, the 11-man senior class led the Irish on a late-season hot streak that landed them back in the NCAA tournament where they fell, 4-3, in overtime to St. Cloud State.
After experiencing the move to Compton Family Ice Arena, a conference switch and even a Frozen Four, Notre Dame’s seniors utilized their final year in blue-and-gold uniforms to add even more accolades to their legacy.
On offense, senior center T.J. Tynan and right wing Bryan Rust spearheaded the Irish attack, leading the team with 30 assists and 17 goals, respectively. Chipping in with 13 goals and nine assists of his own, along with leadership on and off the ice, was senior captain and left wing Jeff Costello.
The Irish (23-15-2, 9-9-2 Hockey East) also relied on seniors on defense. Defensemen Stephen Johns, Shayne Taker and Kevin Lind provided Notre Dame with a big, bruising back line that held opponents to an average of just 2.22 goals per game.
The Notre Dame Monogram Club’s Most Valuable Player award for the 2013-14 season went to the senior residing in the net. Goaltender Steven Summerhays stood out in his second full season as a starter, leading the NCAA with seven shutouts and finishing sixth nationally with a goals-against-average of 2.04. Summerhays also set a new Irish career record with 13 shutouts and finished with 57 total victories, second-most in program history.
When the Irish struggled this season, Irish coach Jeff Jackson said the seniors stepped up and took responsibility for making sure they ended their Notre Dame careers on their own terms.
“When in the second half we had a little bit of a struggle in January, they were the guys to get us out of it, rescue the season and put us in position … to get into the NCAA tournament,” Jackson said. “It was primarily guys like Summerhays and three of our senior defensemen and … our senior forwards. They were the guys who really made sure that they finished their careers on a more positive note.”
A final trip to the NCAA tournament for the seniors seemed unlikely as late as Feb. 7, when a 2-1 loss to Maine dropped the Irish to 15-12-1 overall and just 4-9-1 in Hockey East play.
However, that would be the last loss for the Irish until the Hockey East tournament, as Notre Dame went on a 7-0-1 tear before finally losing, 4-2, at Boston College on March 15 in the Hockey East tournament quarterfinals, a series the Irish still won, 2-1. Notre Dame handed Boston College (28-8-4, 16-2-2) three of its eight total losses during the season.
Although the Irish lost in the Hockey East semifinals to UMass-Lowell, Jackson said his team’s performance toward the end of the season, particularly against Boston College, made him believe Notre Dame had championship-level talent.
“That was our best hockey of the year in February,” Jackson said. “We had that … unbeaten stretch and went against [Boston College] and beat them three out of four times … at the time when they were the second-ranked team in the country. And doing that was special; it was probably the highlight of our season, unfortunately. I really felt like, after winning that [Hockey East playoffs] series against Boston College, that we may have had a chance to win a championship.”
Neither a Hockey East nor an NCAA title was meant to be for Notre Dame. Consecutive defeats saw the Irish bow out of both tournaments right after the series win over the Eagles.
The Irish suffered a 4-0 defeat at the hands of UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinal to eliminate any outside chance of earning one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The team’s ultimate No. 2 seed set up a rematch from the 2013 tournament against St. Cloud State (22-11-5, 15-6-3 NCHC).
Despite outshooting the Huskies in regulation, 36-12, Notre Dame never held a lead but sent the game to overtime.
In the overtime period, and after 17 minutes and 15 shots without a goal, the Huskies broke through. Huskies senior forward and Hobey Baker Award nominee Nic Dowd beat Summerhays top shelf to send Notre Dame home early for the second straight year.
Jackson said he hopes a new crop of recruits will build on the team’s progress this season despite the first-round loss.
“It was a positive year in many ways,” Jackson said. “We just want to get over that hump and take that next step to win a championship. I think that’s our focal point now. I think we had a good year getting back to the NCAA tournament … and now we have a bunch of young kids coming in here, so we get to start all over again.”
In a year full of changes for Irish athletic teams due to the move to the ACC, the hockey program had to adjust after its transition to Hockey East, regarded by many as one of the nation’s top college hockey conferences.
The Irish received a blunt introduction from the Hockey East, as they did not sweep a series until a matchup against Boston University on the penultimate weekend of the season. After posting a 2-1-1 record in its first four conference games, Notre Dame went 2-8-0 in its next 10 Hockey East contests.
Sophomore left wing Mario Lucia said there was a lot to learn in the new conference, but he did not excuse the team’s slow start.
“When you’re playing new teams, learning their style makes a big difference,” Lucia said. “Just getting acclimated to the new teams, the new environments and the travel was the big thing — but then again, hockey is hockey, and you’ve got to go out and play.”
Responding to these challenges, frequent linemates Lucia and freshman center Vince Hinostroza provided a spark for the offense. Both players finished second on the team in a scoring category — Lucia with 16 goals and Hinostroza with 24 assists — and Lucia said the pair was able to draw off each other’s strengths.
“We really meshed together well,” Lucia said. “He brings speed and the passing ability, and I bring the finishing and the ability to score. We had played together a couple of years ago [on the USA under-19 national team at the World Junior A Challenge in 2011] prior coming into Notre Dame, and we were able to get that chemistry back pretty quickly. I’m looking forward to playing with him for the next couple of years.”
The Irish will lose a considerable amount of production from their graduating players, but Jackson said the sophomore class should help bridge the gap.
“The sophomore class had a huge year for us,” Jackson said. “Many of them like Lucia and [center Steven] Fogarty really came on in the latter stages of the season and so did [center Thomas] DiPauli and [left wing Sam] Herr. The sophomore class is the class that I expect to step up in a big way next season.”
With the record-setting Summerhays departing the program, Notre Dame must fill a hole at goaltender, with incoming freshman Cal Petersen and current freshman Chad Katunar competing for the role. Katunar started three games and appeared in five, posting a 2-1-0 record and a 2.36 goals against average.