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Hockey

Hoonhout: Irish shouldn’t be focused on last year’s success

| Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Well, it’s getting close to that time of year for Notre Dame.

Jeff Jackson’s squad got back on the right track this past weekend with four points against rival Wisconsin following a win and an overtime draw that pushed Notre Dame (13-8-2, 6-6-1 Big Ten) to third place in the conference standings with just six opponents to go in the regular season.

Sitting currently at No. 11 in the national rankings, the Irish aren’t exactly on thin ice, but they aren’t exactly off it either.

It’s certainly a different narrative than last season, which saw the team run away with the Big Ten title by riding a 13-game win streak to the regular season conference title, the postseason conference title and the program’s second-straight trip to the Frozen Four. Last year, while there were question marks early on, things just seemed to click into place for the Irish as conference play got underway.

Ann Curtis | The Observer

Irish sophomore defensemen Matt Hellickson passes the puck during Notre Dame’s 5-1 win over RPI on Nov. 30 at the Compton Family Ice Arena.

But this time around, it hasn’t been as smooth sailing.

While junior Cale Morris is still the reigning Richter Award-winner and boasts a .924 save percentage this season, he hasn’t shown the same level of consistent dominance, with only one shutout against a ranked opponent this season: an early-season 3-0 win over Providence.

In many ways, Morris epitomizes Notre Dame’s up-and-down season.

At times, the team has shown flashes of what it had last year. But on the big stage, against other top opponents like Minnesota Duluth, Ohio State and Penn State, Notre Dame simply hasn’t had the consistency in performances. While the Irish lost games last year, they never lost 9-1.

But, in all fairness, it’s not very fair to compare the Irish this season to what they had last year. While Notre Dame has proven in recent history that it has the talent to reload quickly, this year the Irish had to rebuild in several key areas, with seniors like offensive guru Jake Evans and defensive stalwarts Jordan Gross and Justin Wade graduating, and with then-juniors Andrew Oglevie and Dennis Gilbert leaving early for the NHL.

The exodus left the Irish short of experience on both ends of the ice, with only four seniors on the roster to start the year. When forward Joe Wegwerth went down with a season-ending knee injury earlier this season, it hurt that much more.

Instead, two years ago might be the better source of inspiration.

In 2016, Notre Dame wrapped up its first half of the season with a scintillating 3-2 home win over then-No. 3 Boston College. It was the performance of the season up to the point, as the Irish hadn’t done a whole lot to write home about. But instead of spark a second-half run that would seal Notre Dame’s trip to the national tournament, it simply was a glimpse of what was to come. After break, the Irish still couldn’t string together performances, and were ranked No. 12 in January. A month later, the team sat at 15th in the polls with only two regular season series to go.

But then, Jeff Jackson’s team got hot at exactly the right time, and started playing real competitive hockey against top competition. Even after UMass Lowell knocked them out of the Hockey East semifinals, the Irish managed to return the favor in the NCAA Regional, and improbably made it to the Frozen Four as a No. 4 seed.

For Notre Dame to have a chance at making a postseason run, the team needs to get past the shadow of last year’s regular season dominance, and instead focus on making sure the best hockey gets played in March. For as good as the play was last season, it did feel like the Irish hit top-gear a bit too early.

So while the regular season matters, Notre Dame should be focused less on defending its conference title, and more on doing some damage in April.

After all, the trophy cabinet is still missing a national championship.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby is a senior PLS/economics double major from Smithtown, NY. He is currently serving as Managing Editor.

Contact Tobias