At the start of the 2009-10 season, Notre Dame was picked second in both the CCHA coaches and media preseason polls. After all, the Fighting Irish had gone to the Frozen Four the previous April. Expectations should have been high, right?
Well, that season ended unceremoniously with a sweep at the hands of Ohio State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. The following fall, at the start of the 2010-11 season, Notre Dame welcomed a large freshman class and hoped for the best — and ended its season at the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn., last April.
“We’re a pretty young team and what they accomplished last year is quite a credit to them, especially not knowing what kind of contributions we were going to get from so many young players,” said coach Jeff Jackson. “So it was certainly rewarding for me, probably one of my more rewarding coaching experiences in my career.”
It is rumored that the coach smiled more than once last season, although reports of outright laughter may be exaggerated.
This season, the Irish have been given the top spot in both the CCHA coaches and media preseason polls plus the preseason USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Jackson wants to make sure that some aspects of history do not repeat.
“Going into this year,” said Jackson, “my eyes are wide open expecting a lot of those players to come back and not just have the same level of success but to try to improve on it, both from an individual perspective and a team perspective. During poll season, getting recognized is great as long as you don’t internalize it. My focus is going to be on the anticipation of the season as opposed to expectations.”
Not only does Notre Dame return a flat-out talented team, but the Irish bring back nearly everybody from a year ago. Jackson said that the strength of the team is its diversity up front.
“I’m relying on the fact that we are going to get great production out of a number of different guys,” said Jackson. The Irish had the 10th-best scoring offense in the nation a year ago, averaging 3.43 goals per game. Freshman T.J. Tynan led the Irish and all freshmen nationally in scoring with 54 points. His classmate Anders Lee, though, led all rookies nationally in goal production with 24, one more than Tynan scored. That’s 47 goals between two players who are both returning.
And they’re not alone. The Irish return five of their six double-digit goal scorers from a year ago, including senior Billy Maday, whom Jackson plans to move from wing to center. “I also think that a number of the sophomores like Mike Voran, Bryan Rust, David Gerths [and] Jeff Costello can all be more productive for us this season,” said Jackson.
What spells doom?
There are a couple of things that may derail the Irish this year, not the least of which is how a young team will react to such a spectacular 2010-11 campaign.
More tangible, though, is defense. Jackson has said repeatedly that the Irish have an undeserved reputation for being a defensive team, and in fact Notre Dame had just the 24th-best defense in the nation last year, allowing 2.75 goals per game on average — with the 39th-best penalty kill (80.7 percent). And someone — either junior Mike Johnson (2.62 goals against average, .904 save percentage) or sophomore Steven Summerhays (3.04, .863) — has to shore up the net.
About the Fighting Irish
2010-11 overall record: 25-14-5
2010-11 CCHA record: 18-17-3-2 (second)
2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Sixth
Key losses: Forwards Ryan Guentzel and Calle Ridderwall; defenseman Joe Lavin
Players to watch: Forwards Anders Lee, Billy Maday, Riley Sheahan, T.J. Tynan; defensemen Sam Calabrese and Sean Lorenz; goaltender Mike Johnson
Impact rookie: Forward Peter Schneider
Why the Fighting Irish will finish higher than the coaches poll: Given where they’ve been picked, the only thing the Irish can do to exceed expectations is to get both houses of Congress to work together toward a better America. Can they do that? Well, they do return a really good hockey team.
Why the Fighting Irish will finish lower than the coaches poll: Given how young this team still is, the Irish are capable of falling into the it-was-all-so-easy-last-season trap.