Irish fall behind early, struggle defensively against River Hawks
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, November 18, 2016
It took just 35 seconds for No. 5 UMass Lowell to set the tone in its 4-1 victory over No. 9 Notre Dame on Thursday night at Compton Family Ice Arena.
That’s when junior left wing C.J. Smith followed his own shot and knocked the rebound past Irish junior netminder Cal Petersen on the game’s first shift to give his River Hawks (8-3-2, 4-1-0 Hockey East) a lead they never relinquished.
It marked the seventh time in its last nine games Notre Dame (5-4-2, 2-2-1) conceded the first goal of the game, the only exceptions being junior left wing Joe Wegwerth’s game-opening tally against Connecticut on Oct. 28 and Sunday’s scoreless tie with Northeastern.
“It’s just focus. It’s a matter of being prepared to start the game,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said after the game. “And I have to take responsibility for it — I mean they were a lot better prepared than we were. And that’s on me.”
Lowell extended its lead just 1:36 into the second period as two River Hawks walked in alone on Petersen, catching the Irish in a bad change seconds after Notre Dame killed off a penalty.
“There [were] some untimely goals, no question, early in the game like that, getting scored on first shift,” Jackson said. “Then, after we made it 2-1, making an uncharacteristic play. Giving them basically a pure 2-on-0 to the net off of a turnover. Certainly, timing of goals is a huge factor.”
Giving up odd-man opportunities and breakaways has hampered Notre Dame all season, and Jackson said after the game the River Hawks’ system is designed to exploit that flaw in their opponents. The Irish had a short week of practice this week, playing a Sunday afternoon game against Northeastern last weekend, which Jackson said also contributed to his team’s struggles with Lowell’s unique system.
“We gave them too much time coming out of their zone, which allows that center, that high man, to get out of the zone,” Jackson said. “I’ll take responsibility as far as preparing our guys for that. You can show them film — didn’t have enough time to really practice to play against a team like that, when they’re doing something consistently different than anybody you play. And they took advantage of it.
“But we still have to read the ice. We still have to make good decisions.”
Irish junior center Connor Hurley cut his team’s deficit in half with his second goal of the season a few minutes later, hammering the puck past Lowell freshman goaltender Tyler Wall off a feed from sophomore left wing Dylan Malmquist.
Lowell pushed its lead back to two though with just over six minutes remaining in the second period as senior center Evan Campbell streaked in on another breakaway. Petersen again made the first save, but Campbell poked the rebound between the Irish captain’s legs, and the puck squeaked across the goal line.
Smith buried an empty net goal with just over two minutes remaining in the game to reach the final 4-1 margin, and on his way back into the Irish net, Petersen slammed his stick against the boards in frustration.
“He can only stop so many 2-on-1s,” Jackson said. “And again, that’s our ability to not turn pucks over and also to just have better awareness defensively.”
Petersen stopped 31 of the 34 pucks he faced, while Wall turned away 22 of Notre Dame’s 23 shots.
Jackson said the River Hawks’ high pressure offense led to sloppy play in Notre Dame’s defensive zone.
“It’s a panic threshold [on defense],” Jackson said. “ … We have a tendency to turn pucks over when we’re under pressure. And that’s — some of it was a little uncharacteristic, for me, a few of the mistakes, but a lot of it is a direct result of their pressure.
“You have to play big-boy hockey. You have to make plays under pressure.”
The Irish are just 1-8-2 against the River Hawks since the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, but Notre Dame gets another shot at the bane of its Hockey East existence Friday night when the puck drops on the series finale at 7:35 p.m.
Jackson said getting an important conference win Friday comes down to execution and a “matter of willingness.”
“We have to be better, plain and simple.”