Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson can give his counterpart in Ann Arbor some competition in the understated department.
“We’re returning a pretty good group of players,” he said in preseason, with a completely straight face.
While Notre Dame graduated a senior class that was pivotal in the history of the program, the players who remain — while perhaps not yet household names — are dynamite. The Irish had the best team defense in the country in 2008-09 and goaltender Jordan Pearce between the pipes, a powerful one-two punch that often distracted from the stealthy, potent ND offense.
The Irish have players from every class who can contribute in every aspect of the skating game. Gone are Erik Condra and Christian Hanson and their 29 combined goals, but returning are five players who accounted for 64 of ND’s 135 total markers of a year ago: sophomore Billy Maday (16), juniors Calle Ridderwall (17) and Ben Ryan (12), and seniors Christiaan Minella (9) and Ryan Thang. Only three Irish skaters who saw significant playing time didn’t contribute at least a goal last season, all three blueliners, and one of them — Luke Lucyk — was a senior.
“I think over the last two or three years, with the incoming freshmen from the last years, our speed and our skill has improved quite a bit,” said Jackson. “I’m excited about the potential of us playing a much more skill-and-speed game at a higher tempo.
“We’ve been good defensively over the last three years and I expect that we’ll continue to do that, but I think the potential for us to be exciting to watch is extremely good at this point, the skill level being improved over the last three years.”
An improved skill level during the last three years wasn’t limited to new recruits. Last year, senior Jordan Pearce posted a career-best .931 save percentage, spurring speculation about that position for the upcoming season. Jackson, however, isn’t worried.
“At this point,” said Jackson, “we’re excited about the prospect of Brad Phillips taking a step.”
Phillips, a seventh-round Philadelphia draft pick in 2007, posted a 4-1-0 record with a .923 save percentage in his freshman year (2007-08), and missed his entire sophomore year with a knee injury. “[W]e expect him to be the guy who will start for us on opening night,” said Jackson, who added that Phillips will get some competition from freshman Mike Johnson and redshirt junior Tom O’Brien.
On defense, the Irish have senior Brett Blatchford, the outstanding junior Ian Cole, and a veteran corps ready to distract opponents from that excellent Notre Dame offense. Add to all of this the disappointing end to ND’s 2008-09 season, that lackluster performance in a loss to Bemidji State in the Midwest Regional final, and there are plenty of reasons to pick the Irish to top the league — which is exactly what many did.
Oh! And there’s a new arena coming! That is something impossible to understate.