Somewhat lost in the excitement of ND Football's 6-0 start and upcoming game at Florida State has been the beginning of the college hockey season. The start of the season has flown so under the radar, that here at OFD, we're releasing our season preview after the season has already started. In case you missed it, the ND Hockey team opened the regular season last Friday with a 3-2 loss to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute followed by a 3-0 loss to University of Minnesota-Duluth. The games were part of the Ice Breaker Tournament, eventually won by Minnesota, held at Compton Family Ice Arena on Notre Dame's campus.
The opening game against the RPI Engineers began well for ND. After controlling the first period, Mario Lucia opened the scoring at 17:07 giving the Irish a 1-0 lead. Lucia scored after a nifty backhand pass from Sam Herr beating RPI's goalie Jason Kasdorf glove side. In the final seconds of the period, however, Vince Hinostroza was sent to the box for cross checking. After the break, Rensselaer tied the game in the opening seconds of the 2nd period with the man advantage. Viktor Liljegren scored the RPI goal after sophomore ND goalie Chad Katunar spilled a rebound from Jimmy DeVito. Rensselaer would take the lead a few minutes later through a Jacob Laliberté shot from the slot that beat Katunar on the high stick side. Despite two ND power plays, the rest of the period finished without any further scoring. Early in the third period, Rensselaer's Jake Wood was whistled for kneeing, giving ND another power play. The Irish man advantage quickly ended, however, as Lucia was sent to the box for holding the stick after the first faceoff of the power play. One minute into the 4v4, freshman defenseman Jordan Gross found the net tapping in a rebound from a Robbie Russo shot from the point to tie the game at two. The game was tied for less than a minute when Mark Miller scored just before the 4v4 ended to give the Engineers a 3-2 lead. With more than 15 minutes left to tie the game, the Irish were unable to find a tying goal. Despite outshooting RPI the rest of the way, ND did little to trouble the Engineers goaltender Jason Kasdorf, who was comfortable eating shots from long distance and limiting second chances with good rebound control. After taking their timeout with one minute to go and pulling Katunar for an extra skater, the first Hockey Night in South Bend ended with an Irish loss.
Facing the UMD-Bulldogs Sunday afternoon, ND coach Jeff Jackson responded to the disappointing Friday night by replacing Katunar with freshman Cal Petersen between the pipes. Jackson also played with his line combinations, shifting players so that only the starting defensive pairing of Luke Ripley and Andy Ryan was unchanged from Friday night. The changes had little effect, however, as ND was outplayed by UMD losing 3-0. UMD scored a PP goal at 7:40 in the first period after a Russo penalty, then killed four ND power plays to end the period. Duluth began the second with another goal on the power play to take a 2-0 lead. The Bulldogs added a third with under a minute left in the period at even strength to finish the scoring. ND had trouble staying out of the box the entire afternoon giving UMD eight power plays while not scoring on any of their six chances with the extra skater. The 0-6 Power Play performance against UMD combined with the 0-5 showing Friday puts the Irish at 0-11 with the man advantage. Furthermore, ND consistently struggled to gain the zone cleanly Friday night and only managed two shots in their three 2nd period power plays against RPI. While Jackson's teams have frequently frustrated fans with their power play, the team will need to significantly improve this half of special teams going forward. Whether the special teams simply need time to clean up some sloppiness and gel with teammates or if there is a deeper problem remains to be seen. Fighting Irish fans can see the team in action again tonight and tomorrow against Lake Superior State on NBCSN. The series opener starts at 7:35, and the 6:05 start time Saturday gives football fans a chance to catch the first few periods before the football team takes center stage.
Hockey East: Two Clear Favorites, Then a Jumbled Mess
Despite the slow start, ND's second season in Hockey East should be an interesting one. Before the two losses to start the season, ND was ranked 10th and 12th in the USA Hockey and USCHO.com national college hockey preseason polls. Last season, ND finished 8th in the regular season in the conference, but got hot down the stretch and got all the way to the Championship Game of the Hockey East Tournament. They earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament, but once again, a small Minnesota school proved to be ND's kryptonite. St. Cloud State ended the Irish season in the first round, beating the Irish 4-3 in overtime. This season, ND was picked to finish 3rd in the now 12 team Hockey East by the coaches, but picked to finish 7th with Vermont by the media. Where the two polls have consensus is at the very top. Providence and BC were picked to finish first and second in the conference, and 3rd and 4th nationally, but after the top two spots, three through nine are almost interchangeable before a sharp drop off to bottom feeders Merrimack, UMass, and UConn. It will be important for ND to take care of business against the bottom of the league and not give up ground to the rest of the league. Since the top four in the conference receive byes in the postseason tournament, and teams in places five through eight host first round games, ND and the rest of the deep middle of the conference will hope to snag a bye to the quarter finals, or at least host one of the bottom feeders in round one.
Replacing Major Contributors
It was apparent watching this weekend that Notre Dame's team looks very difference than the one that took the ice last spring. ND lost their top two leading scorers, top defensemen, and starting goaltender from last season to graduation. Center TJ Tynan led the Irish with 38 points last season after playing significant minutes for four seasons in South Bend. Tynan was drafted by Columbus as an underclassman, and is currently in their minor league system. While wearing an "A" last season, Bryan Rust recorded 33 points as a right winger, and has since moved on to the Penguins minor league system. Stephen Johns was the top defenseman last season while also serving as an assistant captain. He chipped in 20 points from the blue line, and has a chance to make the Blackhawks roster at some point during the season. He will begin with the Rockford Icehogs, their AHL affiliate. Shayne Tacker and Kevin Lind's graduation also leaves the Irish short on experience on the blue line. Lastly, goaltender Steven Summerhays who led the nation in shutouts last season with seven, will have to be replaced as the first choice starting goalie. After two games, Jackson appears not to have settled on whether Summerhay's backup from last season Katunar or freshman Cal Petersen will get the majority of starts in the crease.
Although they are losing their losing the top two scorers, there aren't a lot of questions about where the Irish scoring will come from. Notre Dame will return three of their top five point men from last season, and although Tynan led the team in points, the goals and assists were pretty evenly distributed among the top forwards. Sophomore center Vince Hinostroza is Notre Dame's returning points leader having scored 8 goals to go with 24 assists in his first season in college hockey. Junior winger Mario Lucia, son of Minnesota and US World Junior Team head coach Don Lucia, is Notre Dame's returning leading goal scorer. He lit the lamp 16 times last season to go with 15 assists. Junior winger Sam Herr, who will be an assistant captain this season, had 28 points last fall, and was just behind Lucia in goals. While the forward lines contain a lot of experience, the defense has a lot of questions marks. Seniors Eric Johnson, Robbie Russo, and junior Andy Ryan are the only defensemen that have played more than 15 games for ND. The inexperience on the blue line, as well as in goal, is a huge question mark that will have to be addressed for the Irish. Jackson's defensive system should help with this, but ND will need their young defensemen to quickly adjust quickly to college hockey if the Irish are to make another run to the NCAA Tournament.
Highlights of the Schedule
Even with the Ice Breaker tournament in the books, there are still a number of great games left on Notre Dame's schedule. NBCSN will televise 12 games nationally, and eight others will be available for streaming on NBC Live Extra. Based on the preseason polls, ND will play half of the Top 10 starting with two games against #1 Minnesota Friday, November, 7 and Sunday, November, 9. In early December, ND will host another four-team tournament, with Notre Dame playing against defending national champions Union in their opening game. Former CCHA members Western Michigan and Ohio State will meet in the other first round game. Lastly, the last three weeks of the Hockey East season feature two home games against Providence and four games against the Boston schools, two at Boston University and two home to Boston College. These games could determine who wins the conference as well as dramatically affecting ND's pairwise ranking which determines NCAA Tournament qualification. Following the regular season, ND will have the Hockey East Tournament and hopefully the NCAA Tournament after that. This season, Compton Family Ice Arena will host an NCAA Regional, and should they earn a bid, ND could have the chance to play at home for a berth in their third Frozen Four.
While a slow start might be expected given the youth of the team, the schedule sets up well for this. ND has two series against somewhat lesser teams. The aforementioned games tonight and tomorrow Lake Superior State and next weekend's series Niagara give the team a chance to figure things out before some tougher opponents. While by no means pushovers, neither of Notre Dame's next two opponents have received votes in the most recent national polls (even 0-2 ND is receiving votes in both). After that, ND starts Hockey East play hosting two games against Vermont before their series at Minnesota. Anyone on campus for the Louisville football game has the chance to watch ND play currently 9th ranked UMass-Lowell Friday night before the game. Although the season's opening weekend didn't start how Irish fans would have hoped, it's way too early to panic. Coach Jackson believes this young team will look very different in January than it does now. The success of his 10th season on the bench at Notre Dame hinges on whether or not he is right.