Anson Carter, analyst for Saturday's half of this weekend's ND hockey doubleheader with non-conference foe Western Michigan, had an interesting point during the game. Carter, who played for Michigan State in his college days, said that around this time in a season is when a team can go one direction or the other.
That wasn't a particularly good omen for ND, which lost twice to the surging Broncos over the weekend to fall to 9-10-2 on the season.
Things started out looking like they would go well, as the Irish came out very aggressively in the early moments of Friday's opener in Kalamazoo. The Irish narrowly missed a goal when Mario Lucia's shot went wide off of a great pass from Vince Hinostroza. ND basically carried play for the first few minutes.
That all changed when WMU's Colton Hargrove made an incredible effort to score one of the more acrobatic goals of the season in college hockey with 11:27 to go in the first period. Hargrove dove to the ice to field a pass from Nolan LaPorte and somehow managed, while still on the ice, to flick the puck past ND goaltender Cal Petersen to open the scoring.
That goal seemed to throw the Irish off, as they began to get sloppy with the puck, and only with some luck were they able to avoid falling behind any further. Lucia stepped in during the final minute of the first period, sliding in to get a spectacular redirect of a shot by Hinostroza to tie the game.
ND appeared about ready to seize control early in the second period when Jordan Gross earned a fortunate goal. His long shot that he essentially just flung at the net from long range slipped past the Broncos' Lukas Hafner, and ND grabbed a 2-1 lead. Austin Wuthrich nearly added another goal off a nice pass from Hinostroza, but just missed. Still, the Irish had bounced back from the early struggles.
However, in the second half of the first period, WMU would grab the upper hand and never surrendered it. ND committed a penalty when Sam Herr checked from behind, and although the Irish killed it off, the Broncos had the flow of play in their favor. They would tie things up on a Matt Stewart slap shot.
WMU dominated the third period. The Broncos took the lead on a Justin Kovacs goal, earned when Kovacs brilliantly maneuvered through the ND defense, and added a cushion when Willem Nong-Lambert took advantage of a turnover in the ND zone and scored his first collegiate goal.
The Irish didn't go on the power play until there were under 12 minutes to go, but as ND sports the nation's worst power play unit (a 6% scoring rate), even the paucity of power plays likely didn't make much of a difference. The Irish continued to sputter the rest of the game, squandering their empty net when Gross was called for slashing with 90 seconds left. The Broncos took the win, 4-2.
ND started strong again Saturday, but this time were able to get a goal out of it. Even better, it was on the power play, breaking an incredible 1-for-41 power play drought. With 13:47 to play in the opening period, Thomas DiPauli took a filthy backhand pass from Mario Lucia and whipped it into the net to give the Irish the lead. With the power-play demons exorcised for the moment, things looked great for the Irish. ND continued to control play most of the rest of the period, narrowly missing a couple of more goals and doing well on the power play, even though it didn't add another goal on its subsequent two opportunities.
The Irish went up 2-0 with 4:56 to go in the first, this time on a great move by Vince Hinostroza that led to a goal. However, the resilient Broncos stormed back, tying the game in what seemed a blink of an eye rather than the 1:40 in game time that it actually took. Justin Kovacs and Will Kessel had the scores.
Lucia got ND back on top, though, early in the second period when WMU netminder Lukas Hafner sloppily let a shot by Hinostroza bounce in front of him. The junior forward homed in like a missile and fired the rebound shot in, and ND led 3-2. However, just like Friday, the Irish would be done scoring early. A five-minute major penalty for boarding on Justin Wade led to the Broncos' tying goal, from Nolan LaPorte on a slick slap shot over the shoulder of starting goaltender Chad Katunar.
Katunar was relieved by Cal Petersen in net in the third period, and the Irish played well much of the third period, but couldn't find the back of the net. DiPauli missed an opportunity for a go-ahead score when he was unable to field a great pass from Hinostroza that left him with an open net. And although the Irish did well to block several shots from WMU with just under three minutes to go, an innocuous loose puck in the ND zone would prove costly. That puck ended up on the stick of Colton Hargrove, who bookended his great weekend by firing a slapper over Petersen's right shoulder with 1:06 to go to give the Broncos a 4-3 victory.
- ND is young. They're going to be inconsistent. This is frustrating for the program's more die-hard followers, who have been used to a solid veteran group in recent years, but the Irish have just five seniors, and many of the team's key minutes are filled by freshmen or sophomores at this point. There will be growing pains. There were sparks over the weekend, as there have been much of the season, of what this team can become, but at the moment they aren't yet putting it together.
- Related to the first takeaway, the great goaltending ND was getting from Petersen and Katunar early in the season is absent at the moment. Not that any of the goals the Irish gave up were specifically on the netminders, but judging from what I watched early in the season, either or both might have made saves on some of them when they were playing locked-in early in the season. I'm sure their form will return - these are the dog days of the season, after all.
- ND's power-play struggles are perplexing, given the talent the Irish possess. At times, ND executes some terrific offensive play; Lucia's pass to DiPauli that led to the Irish's first goal Saturday was the stuff of NHL players. Given the team's youth, the issues are probably as much mental as anything else. If ND is aggressive and just gets back to firing shots at the net more on the advantage, they'll probably improve as the season goes along.
- All things considered, the Irish are going to make their bones in the conference schedule. That's when they face the best opponents on their slate. An at-large bid to the NCAA tournament seems a long shot at this point, so the best thing ND can do is focus on the Hockey East schedule and try as make as much hay as it can against league foes.