Paying twice for the same penalty makes Notre Dame’s Jackson see red

In a CCHA season that has been fascinating at the very least, it’s been an especially interesting month for Notre Dame.

On New Year’s Eve, the Fighting Irish beat visiting Boston University 5-2 and in their first Division I game of the new year a week later, the Irish traveled to Minneapolis and topped the Golden Gophers 4-3.

The following weekend, Notre Dame lost two in a home-and-home series with Western Michigan — and it was the first loss that made coach Jeff Jackson really, really unhappy.

“You had to be there to see the whole thing,” said Jackson. “The officiating was unbelievably bad. It was so bad that the CCHA changed officials the next night and they never do that.”

By now, people around the CCHA know that “the whole thing” that Jackson referred to is Notre Dame’s 3-2 loss to Western Michigan Jan. 13. That’s the game in which forward Jeff Costello was assessed a major penalty for contact to the head and ejected from the game. The problem with the penalty was that Costello was nowhere near the play and Riley Sheahan was the one responsible for knocking down the Broncos’ Dane Walters.

According to Jackson, that was just one issue in the game. At 11:26 in the third period, the Irish were assessed a bench minor for too many men, but Jackson said the penalty was the result of the Notre Dame bench’s response to a hit to Stephen Johns for which WMU’s Danny DeKeyser wasn’t penalized, right in front of the ND bench. The Broncos capitalized on that power play at 12:07 and tied the game. Fourteen seconds later, Kyle O’Kane scored the winner for Western Michigan — with DeKeyser assisting.

Let’s make several things clear here. First, in no way in discussion with Jackson did he ever have anything but good things to say about Western Michigan. Second — and keep the first point in mind, too — Jackson is not a whiner. Third, he didn’t even complain about the loss itself.

In other words, this is not about sour grapes.

That leads us to the third thing here: No one feels worse about the sequence of events in the actual game than referees Keith Sergott and Matthew Miller, and assistant referees Bruce Vida and Brian Troester. Sergott and Vida are two of the hardest-working, most conscientious officials in the game. This isn’t about vilifying them. They’d probably like to have that night back. As Jackson himself said, what’s done is done.

This is about due process and punishing a team twice for a single infraction — an infraction that was incorrectly called in the first place.

The game was televised and even in real time it’s clear that Sheahan hit Walters at 14:39 in the second, so it’s no stretch to say that this was a blown call. Costello was ejected and Nick Larson went to the box to serve the five-minute major.

I watched Sheahan’s hit to Walters repeatedly, and I can see absolutely no contact to the head. It’s shoulder-to-shoulder contact and it’s high, but Walters’ head is untouched. It should have earned Sheahan two minutes for interference.

So you have the wrong guy called for a penalty and the wrong penalty assessed on the play. What happened days later, though, is what made Jackson see red.

“We didn’t know until Monday night that they were going to review it,” said Jackson. “When Steve Piotrowski called, my first thought was that Western Michigan sent in the tape for review.”

But that’s not what happened. When the Broncos heard that the league was reviewing the play, WMU coach Andy Murray called Jackson to tell him that Western did not send in the tape for review. In fact, said Jackson, Murray told him the play didn’t merit review. What was done was done.

Except it wasn’t.

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, the CCHA issued a press release saying that Sheahan was going to be suspended for one game because he was guilty of “delivering an illegal hit to a Western Michigan player.”

Notre Dame immediately challenged the suspension.

“First of all, we thought it was a legal hit,” said Jackson. “It wasn’t a high hit, and it was called a five-minute major for contact to the head.”

Jackson conceded that it could have been interference but not a major penalty.

“It wasn’t high and it wasn’t from behind and it wasn’t along the wall,” said Jackson. “It was a hard hit. It was an open-ice hit. It wasn’t vicious, in my opinion, and it wasn’t retaliatory.”

ND’s appeal of the suspension allowed Sheahan to play last Friday night against Michigan, a game that the Irish won 3-1. They lost the following night, 2-1, with Sheahan serving the suspension after the Irish lost the appeal.

“I was mad,” said Jackson. “I was mad about how the whole thing was handled.”

Wrong player, wrong call. “And we didn’t even know until Wednesday, five days after the incident, that Sheahan was suspended,” said Jackson. “I thought it was handled poorly. He missed Saturday’s game and it had a big impact in the game. He’s one of our top penalty killers.”

Both of Michigan’s goals in Saturday’s game came in the first period on the power play.

And perhaps the worst part about the whole thing? “They didn’t get the right player,” said Jackson, “so we actually paid for the same penalty twice.”

That’s exactly what happened. A blown call led to a team being penalized twice for the same play. And unless the league had much more definitive evidence that Sheahan actually did make contact to Walters’ head, the CCHA blew this one twice, punishing Notre Dame for the league’s original mistake.

As for the second penalty about which Jackson had a complaint — that bench minor for too many men in the third period — I couldn’t see an extra Notre Dame skater in the mix and the Irish weren’t making a line change, but I didn’t see every inch of the ice when the whistle was blown. Jackson may have a valid complaint about the hit on Johns, but it’s difficult to tell whether DeKeyser left his feet before making contact with Johns or if he left his feet as a result of making contact with Johns — but he left his feet and there appeared to be contact to the head.

Dave Starman was calling the game for CBS Sports Network, and he made an excellent point in a column last week about the potential use of video replay to aid officials when something is unclear when a call is made, like who actually committed an infraction.

A review process for due process. That has potential.

Hey, they play hockey, too

Officially in 2012, the Fighting Irish are 2-3-0, with that win against Minnesota, sweep at the hands of Western Michigan and last weekend’s split with the Wolverines.

Jackson is happy. Well, at least he sounded OK. “We’re getting better,” said Jackson. “We only gave up three goals against a pretty good offensive team this weekend.”

Giving up three goals in two games to Michigan is a really good barometer. Heading into last weekend’s series, the Wolverines had the sixth-best offense nationally, averaging 3.54 goals per game. This week they’re No. 8 (3.39), which is more than respectable.

Heading into last weekend’s series, the Irish had the 27th-best defense in the country, allowing 2.75 goals per game. This week they’re No. 24 (2.65) — slightly more respectable. Better overall defense has been a focus for Notre Dame this season.

“Some of it’s been goaltending and it’s also about how we play in front of our goaltending, too,” said Jackson. “We’ve played pretty well since we’ve got back from Christmas break. Even in that Western series we played well.”

From the start of the season, the Fighting Irish have been looking for a starting goaltender to emerge, and they may have found what they’ve been seeking in Steven Summerhays. With the exception of ND’s exhibition game against the Russian Red Stars Jan. 3 and the Jan. 14 loss to Western Michigan, Summerhays has started every game since the Irish beat Ferris State Dec. 10 to stop a four-game losing streak. He’s 4-2-0 in that span, with a 2.00 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

“He’s getting some confidence and playing a lot better,” said Jackson. “He’s only a sophomore.”

Jackson said that the rotation between Summerhays and senior Mike Johnson has been friendly. “There’s nothing wrong with a little competition,” he said. “Mike Johnson’s played some big games for us.”

The Irish finished the 2010-11 season 10th in the country in offense, averaging 3.43 goals per game. This season, though, Notre Dame is struggling a bit, coming in at No. 25 (2.92). Consider, though, that only two teams in the CCHA — Michigan (eighth) and Michigan State (18th) — are among the top 20 teams in the country offensively. Only three league players have 10 or more goals in conference games — Ohio State’s Chris Crane (12), Michigan’s Alex Guptill (11) and Miami’s Reilly Smith (11).

“The depth of our league is part of it,” said Jackson. “It’s hard to score. There’s a lot of good goaltenders and a lot of teams play really good team defense.”

This weekend, Notre Dame travels to Fairbanks to face Alaska. The Nanooks’ defense? Tenth in the nation.

Players of the week

Miami nearly sweeps.

Rookie of the week: Miami’s Austin Czarnik, who had four assists in the RedHawks’ sweep of Western Michigan.

Offensive player of the week: Miami’s Reilly Smith, who scored all three goals in the RedHawks’ 3-1 win over the Broncos Friday and had the game winner in Saturday’s 4-0 contest.

Defenseman of the week: Ferris State’s Simon Denis, who had four assists — two in each game — as the Bulldogs defeated and tied Ohio State.

Goaltender of the week: Miami’s Connor Knapp, who swept the Broncos with a 0.50 goals-against average and .980 save percentage for the series. Saturday’s shutout was his second of the season and 10th of his career.

My ballot

1. Minnesota-Duluth
2. Minnesota
3. Boston University
4. Boston College
5. Michigan
6. Notre Dame
7. Merrimack
8. Massachusetts-Lowell
9. Cornell
10. Ferris State
11. Colorado College
12. Ohio State
13. Western Michigan
14. Miami
15. Denver
16. Michigan State
17. Northern Michigan
18. Maine
19. North Dakota
20. Union