Youth proves problematic early for Notre Dame
Alex Carson | Friday, May 15, 2015
Notre Dame’s 2014 campaign followed the arc of the stereotypical young team: inconsistent early with a few veterans carrying the team before hitting a groove as the season drew to a close.
The year started out rough for Irish head coach Jeff Jackson’s squad. With 10 freshmen on the roster, the Irish lost their exhibition contest to Waterloo before falling twice at the Ice Breaker Tournament at home. But then they came back and won five straight, pushing their record back above .500 early in the year.
It was a false dawn for Notre Dame, however, which won just five of its next 20 games, placing it outside the NCAA tournament conversation by the end of January.
For the Irish, the right mix just wasn’t there.
“You know, we started off very inconsistent,” Jackson said.
Perhaps that inconsistency was on display best at the Florida College Hockey Classic.
With seven minutes to play Dec. 28 in Estero, Florida, Notre Dame trailed rival and then-No. 5 Miami by a 2-0 margin.
In the blink of an eye, it all changed. Freshman forward Jake Evans ignited the Irish, assisting on a goal to bring the deficit to one before tying the game up with 23 seconds left to send it to overtime.
There, he scored the winner.
The next night, it seemed a foregone conclusion for the Irish; they faced Lake Superior State in the final, a team which ended up winning one nonconference game all season.
That game was that night in Florida, against the Irish.
But after Notre Dame’s 5-2 loss at New Hampshire on Jan. 30, which dropped it to 10-14-3, the team figured something out. The Irish lost just five more times over the season’s remaining 15 games, soaring to a fifth-place finish in Hockey East on the heels of victories over eventual national champion Providence, runner-up Boston University and then-No. 9 Boston College, when freshman goaltender Cal Petersen made 55 saves in a 3-1 win.
For Jackson, with a young team, he saw his team’s progression as a positive to carry forward.
“The most important thing is that we got better as the season progressed,” he said. “ … To some degree, you expect freshmen to step up and have the opportunity to prove themselves, especially with the amount of time they played and they certainly did a good job for us as the season progressed.
“They got some experience, gained some confidence. Whether it’s the goaltender, the defensemen or the forwards, they all made improvements and certainly helped us in the second half.”
After reaching the Hockey East quarterfinals following a first-round series victory over Massachusetts, the Irish bowed out on the road in Lowell, Massachusetts, eliminated by UMass Lowell, 2-1.
The win in that series though meant the Irish knocked off each of the four teams that finished ahead of them in the final standings; Providence, Boston University, Boston College and UMass Lowell, in the final month of the season.
The catalyst for much of that success was Petersen, and while a 55-save performance would often be the hallmark one for a goaltender in a season, it wasn’t for the freshman; he set the NCAA record with 87 saves in the longest game in college hockey history, a 4-3 quintuple-overtime loss to Massachusetts in the first round of the Hockey East tournament.
Petersen was far from the only freshman to have a significant impact for the Irish; defenseman Jordan Gross tallied 28 points from the blueline in his rookie campaign, while forwards Anders Bjork, Evans and Connor Hurley all reached the double-digit mark in points on the year.
Despite the impact his freshmen had, Jackson said there is strong room for improvement moving forward.
“Maybe with one exception, I think they all had good years, not great years,” Jackson said. “And I think that bodes well for them to be motivated going into the offseason, and I think that most of them finished with a fair amount of confidence, knowing what to expect from college hockey, and I think they’ll be better prepared coming in as sophomores.”
While Jackson expressed concern over a “sophomore slump,” he said he felt his newcomers could have added more this year, and that should help them push forward next season.
“I think sometimes sophomores, for so many of them, expectations get in the way, and they don’t have the kind of year that they probably should,” he said. “But it’s a lot easier for them going into their sophomore year if they didn’t really achieve their expectations in the first year. So my thoughts are that they’ll be better for it and more geared towards having a real good year [next season].”
It is likely the Irish will need further contributions from their youngsters next year, after the team’s two leading point-scorers from this season, senior defenseman Robbie Russo and sophomore center Vince Hinostroza, who were both named first-team All-Hockey East, departed the team.
For Russo, it was a story of redemption in his senior year. The defenseman was suspended midway through the 2013-2014 season and returned to the team in the fall with one year of eligibility left.
He made the most of it, sharing the lead for all defensemen nationwide in goals scored (15) and finishing second in points tallied (41).
“I think he responded really well to some personal adversity from the previous year,” Jackson said. “I think he took a big step, especially with such a young defense, playing with a freshman [Gross] all year.”
But for everything Russo did in the goalscoring category, Jackson pointed out his leadership growth; the senior was named a co-captain prior to Notre Dame’s series with Providence on Valentine’s Day weekend.
“He did a great job leading back there, not just with his production but his overall demeanor and his approach to the game,” Jackson said of Russo. “He had a great year offensively, but I thought he did a really good job on the defensive side of the puck as well.”
Russo capped off his 2015 honors by earning a spot on CCM’s All-America team.
While Russo’s departure was expected, Hinostroza’s was a little less so; the sophomore signed a professional contract with the Chicago Blackhawks on March 21.
The center led the Irish in both points scored (44) and assists (33), and Jackson said he was most upset Hinostroza would likely not have the ability to finish his degree at Notre Dame.
“You certainly like to see every player be in a position to earn their diploma from the University of Notre Dame, and this will probably make that an impossibility leaving this early,” Jackson said in an interview March 22. “That’s my biggest disappointment.”
Jackson, however, did get a boost May 8, when junior forward Mario Lucia announced he would return to school for his senior season.
The Minnesota Wild draftee was Notre Dame’s leading goalscorer this season, lighting the lamp 21 times, improving on his 16 goals the prior year.
Jackson said he is excited to have his team’s most-prolific scorer back but indicated the junior’s leadership off the ice may be more important than his play on it.
“We’re thrilled that he’s coming back,” he said. “Mario’s an important part of our team; I think he’s grown a lot over the last two or three years, both as a player and as a young man, and he’s certainly going to make a big difference in our lineup and, more importantly, in our locker room.”
Jackson attributed many of his team’s struggles to a lack of depth — the Irish often struggled to get consistent performances from their third and fourth lines — and he said looks toward next year’s freshmen as players who can fill those roles for his squad moving forward.
“I felt like at times we weren’t a good four-line team, and that’s always our game, so I’m pretty confident that our depth will be better [next year],” he said. “We’ll have more production from four lines, as opposed to two or three, and with the growth by some of the young defensemen and Cal Petersen and Chad Katunar, that we’ll be better coming out of our own zone and playing in our own zone. That’s a good starting point to build on.
“I’m excited about the potential of this class coming in. We’ve got a couple of guys who are pure offensive guys, and we’ve got a couple of guys that are more power-type forwards. We’re gonna have more balance with the type of players we bring in.”
He also thought his team could improve at home, where the Irish went just 10-10-3 this season.
“I want to make sure that we do better at home, play more consistent at home,” Jackson said. “I think our nonconference record is going to have to be better, and it’ll be another challenging year within the conference; we always want to get to the point where we can get to [TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals].”
Jackson said to reach the team’s goal of hoisting the hardware in April, it must focus on these short-term goals first.
“Everything else takes care of itself,” he said. “The end result, making the NCAA tournament, is a precursor to winning an NCAA championship, and that is the long-term goal for this team. … We always aspire to reach that pinnacle. But we have to look at staying focused on what’s important in the short term.”