Battle Tested

There’s nothing like senior leadership at crunch time. Just ask Notre Dame.

Down 1-0 in a best-of-3 CCHA quarterfinal series against surging Ferris State, head coach Jeff Jackson said he really didn’t have to say much. His dressing-room leadership took over and made sure that the Irish, a bubble team in the PairWise Rankings last week, remained very much alive in their quest for a second consecutive CCHA championship.

“Our leadership did a great job,” said Jackson as he drove home from the Joyce Center Tuesday night after the Irish got back to work. “Saturday we were as good as we have been all year in terms of our intensity and execution. We played with an edge, we played determined. Even with our backs to the wall I didn’t have to say much to the team, our leadership did an outstanding job.”

Michigan might be the case study in what great leadership can do for a young team. Miami has great veteran leadership that has guided a talented group of first-year players. Notre Dame isn’t that young where its rookies play the vital role they might elsewhere (like Max Pacioretty riding shotgun for two stars in Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter, or Pat Cannone centering Miami’s first line most of the season), but this talented foursome has come along this season and quietly made Notre Dame a very tough team to play against.

“There are a lot of guys who have elevated their game this season but our freshmen have been great,” said Jackson in referencing Teddy Ruth, Ian Cole, Ben Ryan, and Calle Ridderwall. “Like all kids, they have struggled with their consistency all year but they have also been great. Ryan has had the best two weeks of his career recently and Ridderwall has come into his own.”

Ryan has been a presence all season but Teddy Ruth might be the guy that could play the vital role in the postseason, and that is where the veteran leadership comes in. Brock Sheehan has been paired with Ruth defensively and the senior defenseman from Alberta has mentored the physical future NHL’er this season much the way Noah Babin did for him hen he arrived in South Bend.

“He was an important recruit for us, no doubt about that,” said Jackson earlier this season as ND prepared to play Michigan on CSTV. “Our seniors are good, but overall they don’t play that ultra physical game. Ruth does, he has oomph! He really plays with a physical edge and he has the size and strength to play against the power forwards in the CCHA like a Justin Abdelkader, Ryan Jones, or Kevin Porter. He plays with a ton of moxie and he’s really a great character guy.”

Being paired with the veteran Sheehan hasn’t hurt. On that aforementioned Friday night at Yost, Sheehan and Ruth were a brick wall against the high-flying Porter line, virtually eliminating them from threatening goalie Jordan Pearce. Sheehan’s presence has shown in how confident Ruth has become.

The goaltending has been good also. Despite a stretch where they went 2-3-3 to finish the season, the goals against were low and Jordan Pearce has been a major factor. Following in the footsteps of two accomplished goalies in Morgan Cey and former Hobey Hat Trick finalist David Brown, Pearce has given the Irish solid goaltending.

“I’m really impressed with him. That was his first playoff experience and we had the injury and some adversity in being down 1-0 in the series, and he was the difference-maker,” said Jackson, a former goalie himself. We all know what a team can do when their goalie is playing well and the team has confidence he can keep that going.”

Confidence is high right now as the Irish head to the Joe to play Miami in a single-elimination semifinal. Should they advance they will get either the high-flying Wolverines or the CCHA’s hottest team in upstart Northern Michigan. All three teams have caught the eye of the Irish all season and present intriguing matchup issues for Jackson. However, not thinking too far ahead is one challenge. Not thinking behind is a whole other issue — while the Irish moved past Ferris State it cost them Eric Condra, who suffered a season ending injury in Game 3.

Wounded teams have often gotten more dangerous in the short term. Playing without Condra for an entire semester could have been a huge issue, but losing him in an elimination game strengthened the resolve of the Irish. While there was some chaos on the bench in terms of finding the right people to make lines effective, the focus and resilience of Notre Dame emerged as they scored both goals in Game 3 after Condra got hurt. That wasn’t lost on Jackson.

“When he got [hurt] our focus was great. Nobody got worried — we just kept playing and Sunday we played great as a team,” said Jackson of the character-building win. “When he got hurt everyone just bought into what we had to do and once again our leaders stepped up.”

Hockey dictates that the guys wearing the skates are the ones who matter most and when a good teammate gets hurt he must be forgotten when there is time on the clock. Jackson worried what the effect would be, but saw that the team’s attitude was that there was no time to dwell on the injury; there was still a game and a series to win.

Like all good teams, the Irish adjusted. Players who wouldn’t have had Condra’s ice time suddenly played more. Guys who played B type roles were made a part of the A team. As Jackson remembered, there were times that players were on the ice in situations in which he might not have had confidence in them, but nevertheless they were there and responded. That bodes well for the team psyche.

“I think its only natural that the kids might dwell on Condra being out for the season and we have a challenge to make sure they don’t think about it,” said Jackson. “He’s a great player.”

Jackson is a great coach for many reasons, and handling players and building a solid foundation are among them. In advancing Notre Dame to the precipice of becoming a consistent national power, Jackson’s first few steps in year one are a major factor in why this team is still alive in the CCHA playoffs. He gets guys to buy in because they realize that what he is selling as cornerstones for success have withstood challenges in the past.

“I remember his first year and we weren’t sure what to expect. He sold his vision to our leadership, and our captain T.J. Jindra sold it to us,” remembered Brock Sheehan in a conversation we had in January. “We realized what he preached works and we did so pretty quickly. He got the message out and a guy like Jindra was so committed to making this program something special that it rubbed off on all of us, and still does.”

That link is important because like he did with Jindra, Jackson can now lean on vets like Sheehan, Van Guilder, Garrett Regan and Christian Hanson to foster the belief in the dressing room that they can overcome a key injury like Michigan did with Kolarik.

We won’t have major changes in the way we play at this point in the season,” said Jackson after Tuesday’s practice. “The power play could look different in the way we set up because we have to replace what Eric brings. We tried a unit out there today, we’ll try another tomorrow and by Friday night we’ll have it set and be confident it will work.”

They’ll need that confidence against a Miami team that is, in a word, solid. While it has been anything but smooth sailing in the second half, head coach Enrico Blasi and his intense and combative style have kept Miami an elite team all year. Blasi has done a remarkable job building what can be termed a juggernaut. Solid in four lines and three sets of defensive pairings, and great in goal, Blasi’s team has its best chance right now to cop the Mason Cup.

They have proven they can play with the big boys in the CCHA and they’ll get all they can handle from Notre Dame.

“No one matches up well with Miami because of their depth,” said Jackson as he looked ahead to Friday. “They don’t have much dropoff between their first and fourth lines, any of those ‘D’ pairings can be effective against you and Zatkoff has played so well. They are old, experienced, and really good.”

Notre Dame might not be as old, might not have a Ryan Jones or a Nathan Davis or a Mitch Ganzak or an Alec Martinez. What they have is confidence, and they are battle-tested after last weekend. That puts them in good shape.

They also believe, and that just might make all the difference as an underdog Friday night.