Commentary: Jackson, Irish Ready For Playoff Push

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Jeff Jackson era.

For those of you unfamiliar with the first-year Irish head hockey coach and his team, these next few weeks will be a crash course. Jump on the bandwagon now before it’s too late — this Notre Dame hockey team is going places.

Jackson brings a pedigree of regular and postseason success to an Irish team that has made only one NCAA tournament appearance. Inside College Hockey lists him as one of the 16 greatest college hockey coaches of all-time, one of only five active coaches — including Michigan’s Red Berenson.

He won two national championships as head coach of the Lake Superior State Lakers in 1992 and 1994. He barely lost out on a third in 1993 to Maine’s Jim Montgomery when Montgomery put on one of the top offensive performances ever by a college player — scoring three goals in the third period to erase a two-goal Maine deficit. Montgomery now dons a headset for Jackson’s Irish as an assistant coach.

Ask any long-term college hockey fan about Montgomery’s 1993 Black Bears and you will get a look of disgust. They were that good.

And the former Black Bear is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the crack Notre Dame coaching staff Jackson has assembled. Associate head coach Paul Pooley brings years of experience as head coach of Providence College and as an All-American at Ohio State. Thirteen-year Irish veteran assistant coach Andy Slaggert continues to bring in strong recruits year after year.

This crew looks to be in for the long-term overhaul of an Irish club coming off a miserable five-win season. They have taken what was viewed as a rebuilding year and transformed Notre Dame into a serious contender for the CCHA title.

A serious contender when the team sits only in eighth-place in the league standings? Without a doubt.

Jackson has reversed last year’s anemic offense. Notre Dame’s top goal scorer in 2004-05 had six tallies. There are seven Irish players with six or more goals this season. Last year Cory McLean led the team with 22 points — this season there are five players with 22 or more points. Team goal production has increased by 32 percent overall from last season and the power play unit is ranked fifth in the CCHA in successful conversions.

Dave Brown has been a wall between the pipes since December, playing in 25 out of the last 26 games and posts a 2.50 goals against average for the season.

Irish blueliners have surrendered only 17 goals in the last 10 games, four of which came in a 7-4 defeat of Bowling Green.

A painfully slow start to the season — the Irish initially posted a 1-5 record — has given way to a 10-9-3 tally since Dec. 2. In that span Notre Dame has faced four teams currently in the national top-20 and a total of six opponents were ranked when they faced the Irish.

The first roadblock in the way of an Irish CCHA playoff run is the polar bear-sized Nanooks of Alaska-Fairbanks. On average the Nanooks outweigh the Irish by seven to eight pounds per man and are 1.4 years older. This age difference may seem negligible until one factors in that the Nanooks have only six juniors and seniors. The Irish have 14 upperclassmen.

Few have traveled the CCHA playoff road more successfully in the past than Jackson. He’s finely tuned his squad to handle the rigors of a physical Nanook squad and the disciplined Irish appear poised to corral Fairbanks for a second round bid.

Jackson knows how to win and if he ever needs a reminder of how it feels to lose — he just has to look down the bench at Montgomery.

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