With the first half of the season in the books and the second about to begin, the Notre Dame hockey team is exactly .500 at 8-8-2. The Irish have played better in conference games, and have a 4-2-2 record against Hockey East opponents. This is good for 5th in the 12 team conference, and all four teams ahead of ND have played more conference games than the Irish. On the other hand, the team is a woeful 4-6 out of conference. All four wins are against Lake Superior State and Niagara, both of whom are in the bottom five of the national rankings.
The Remaining Schedule
Thankfully for ND, the four non-conference games left on the schedule give the team a chance to pick up a couple solid out of conference wins. Sunday afternoon, the Irish face #5 Miami in the Florida College Hockey Classic, and will play either Cornell or Lake Superior State the following day. While Miami is a very good team, ND has already beaten #7 Vermont once, and was 40 seconds from a sweep (ND allowed a late equalizing goal and had to settle for a tie). Helping ND's cause is the absence of Miami sophomore Anthony Lewis. He will miss the game while he plays with US World Junior team. Lewis is Miami's highest scoring center (14 points) and is second on the team with 11 assists. Miami is still a strong team, however, and Riley Barber is the player to watch for the Redhawks. The junior has been a point-per-game players since arriving in Oxford, and this year is no different. If the Irish win, they will likely face Cornell, another .500 team that sits a few spots ahead of ND in the pairwise. A back-to-back-home-and-home with Western Michigan finishes the non-conference schedule on January 9 and 10. While the Broncos are just 6-8-2, five of their losses were to top-15 opponents. If the Irish lose the Miami game, winning the next three would put the team at 7-7 out of conference with two decent wins, but winning all four would be huge.
While the season hasn't gone as well as it could have, the Irish are by no means out of the picture for an at-large NCAA bid. Notre Dame currently sits at #32 in the pairwise, but most of their remaining games are against teams that are ahead or just behind them in the rankings. The Irish will need to make the most of their games against Providence, Boston College, and Boston University. The games against BU will be especially exciting as consensus top-2 NHL Draft prospect Jack Eichel plays for the Terriers. The freshman has been as advertised, and leads college hockey with 27 points. The end of year Hockey East Tournament will also give ND a chance to improve their tournament resume. There's also no reason to think that ND couldn't make a run and win the tournament to claim an automatic bid. The Irish lost in the semifinal last season, and they can definitely make it back to the Boston Garden.
The Season so Far
The two standouts for the Irish this far have been junior left-wing Mario Lucia and senior defenseman Robbie Russo. Lucia is currently tied for sixth nationally with 11 goals, and his 14 points is tied for 3rd for the Irish. More surprising has been the outstanding play of Robbie Russo. The senior leads the Irish with 17 points (7 G, 10 A), and is second nationally in both points and goals by a defenseman. Almost more amazing has been the amount of ice-time the Islanders draft pick has racked up this season as the senior is averaging over 30 minutes per game. Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, ND should be loaded next season. Russo is the only senior among the top nine scorers for the Irish which includes three freshmen.
In a somewhat surprising move, Irish coach Jeff Jackson has yet to settle on a starting goaltender. Through 18 games, freshman Cal Petersen and sophomore Chad Katunar have played roughly the same amount. Jackson probably hoped one of the two would emerge as a clear choice, but the two netminders' play has been remarkably similar. Petersen has a slightly better save percentage (.910 vs. .905) and goals against average (2.66 vs. 2.85), but Katunar has a slightly better record (4-3-1) than the freshman (4-5-1). The numbers are a step below Steven Summerhays's from last season, but goaltending hasn't been a big problem for the Irish. Petersen did start the last two games of the first half, so he may have the inside track to locking down the starting job, but it's safe to assume that until one of the two goalies separates himself from the other, both goalies will continue to see time between the pipes.
Saving the worst for last, there's pretty much nothing good to say about the Irish power play. Jackson's ND teams have never been great with the extra skater, but this season has been historically poor. The Irish are 5/73 (6.8%) with the man advantage which is bad/terrible/atrocious/insert negative adjective here. Furthermore, the Irish have allowed two shorthanded goals which makes the opposing team only slightly less likely than ND to score on Irish power plays. Last season, Merrimack was last in Hockey East at 14.0% which is more than double ND's current conversion rate. Some of the Irish power play woes can be explained by bad luck. Overall, Notre Dame's shooting percentage is 10.3%, but the Irish are shooting just 6.9% with the extra skater. On the power play, you would expect to have better looks at the net, and thus have a slightly higher shooting percentage than in 5v5. The shooting percentage should come up as luck evens out, but the amount of chances the Irish are creating with the man advantage is still worrying. Notre Dame has recorded just 72 shots on their 73 power play. Feel free to drop in a different negative adjective to describe this. This level of power play futility is probably unsustainable, but it's frustrating to think that ND would probably have at least one more win if they were simply "bad" on the power play instead of at the bottom of college hockey.
While neither of the games in Florida will be televised, both should be available to stream on WatchND. Both games of the following series against Western Michigan will be televised. The game in Kalamazoo is on CBS Sports, and the home game is on NBCSN. Most importantly, all four home games against BC and Providence are on NBCSN allowing fans to see the games that will make or break the team's NCAA chances this year. While the first half could have been better, they Irish are still very much in the mix in Hockey East. Jackson's last two Irish teams have played their best hockey at the end of the regular season and in the conference tournament, and similar performance this year could give the Irish their third NCAA bid in three years for just the second time in program history.