Notre Dame sees signs of improvement exactly where it was needed

That sophomore slump? You’d better believe it.

Last season, Notre Dame finished tied with Ohio State for eighth place in the CCHA, one year after taking a team laden with a dozen freshmen to the Frozen Four. The Fighting Irish began the first half of 2011-12 with shaky goaltending; the second half of the season brought better goaltending but very little scoring.

In the end, ND finished the season scoring 101 total goals to opponents’ 107 with the nation’s 45th-best scoring offense, 23rd-most effective defense and combined special teams that were 48th out of 58 in the country.

“We were inconsistent,” coach Jeff Jackson said. “We had some great games last year and then we’d turn around and be average.”

This year, Notre Dame was picked to finish first by CCHA coaches in their preseason poll and second by the media — an impressive endorsement for a team that proved everyone wrong in 2011-12 when it was picked first in both preseason polls.

Like a lot of coaches, Jackson doesn’t put much stock in speculation. “It doesn’t really mean a lot,” he said. “I think that people realized that the team that we had the year before, those younger players were pretty good and that they’d be juniors and seniors now.”

The Irish rewarded the preseason shows of faith with an Icebreaker Tournament title and a split with Minnesota-Duluth — the 2011 champs who eliminated Notre Dame in the Frozen Four — last weekend.

“There have been signs of improvement in guys I was hoping to see signs of improvement in,” Jackson said.

Guys like junior forward Bryan Rust, who netted five goals last season in 40 games and already has one to his credit, a power-play marker against the Bulldogs last Thursday. And then there’s his classmate, forward David Gerths, whose third-period goal in ND’s 4-1 win over UMD Friday was his first in 49 games, dating to Feb. 19, 2011.

“That bodes well for us,” Jackson said.

Another good omen is the play of junior Steven Summerhays. In 12 games his freshman year, Summerhays had a 3.04 goals against average and .863 save percentage, but Summerhays was backing up Mike Johnson, who as a sophomore had respectable numbers and played steadily enough to help the Irish reach the Frozen Four.

Last year, Summerhays and Johnson split time in net at the start of the season and Summerhays struggled. By the end of 2011-12, Jackson said, Summerhays was showing signs of the potential the Irish coaching staff thought he had all along.

“Just like any goalie who gets to his upper class,” Jackson said, “they start getting confidence and they have better mental toughness. Both of the last two great goalies I had here, David Brown and Jordan Pearce, didn’t develop until their junior years. I’ve been stressing the importance of consistency, and that consistency is the difference between a good goalie and a great goalie. He’s been consistent.”

Consistency, Jackson said, is the key to everything. “We lacked that last year,” he said.

Another thing the Irish lacked, Jackson said, is confidence, especially at the end of the season. It all stemmed from how the young ND team dealt with the success it experienced the year before with 12 freshmen on the squad.

“One night it was goaltending and the next we couldn’t score,” Jackson said. “It’s not just individual confidence; it’s team confidence, too.

“When you have such a big class and they all started off as freshmen two years ago and they all got to the Frozen Four — there’s a reason they call it the sophomore jinx. The sophomore jinx comes from having too high expectations.”

This year, however, that class is another year older and more mature, a maturity that helped the Fighting Irish after they lost their home opener Oct. 18, 3-1, to Minnesota-Duluth.

“Thursday, we looked nervous — maybe wanting to do too well,” Jackson said. “We took bad penalties, we tried to do too much with the puck. The nature of the kind of penalties we were taking told me we were antsy. They play an up-tempo style and it was a tough game for us.”

The following night, though, the Irish were up 3-0 before the second period was four minutes old and two of those goals were by juniors T.J. Tynan and Jeff Costello.

“We had a much better start to our game,” Jackson said. “We played the way we need to play at home — came out with a lot of jam, played with a lot of confidence. [The team] came out and stopped the foolishness.”

This week, Notre Dame travels to Marquette to open CCHA play against Northern Michigan. “We have some start to our schedule,” Jackson said.

After playing NMU on the road, the Irish return to face Western Michigan at home before traveling to Boston College and Michigan. Then they host North Dakota on Thanksgiving weekend.

ND is 3-1 to start the season, the best start for the Irish since 2010-11, when they began 5-1.

“It’s a good start,” Jackson said.

A bad day for Aniket Dhadphale

As we witness the last season of CCHA hockey, I am overwhelmed with moments that stand out, things that remain with me — some big and important, some seemingly routine — from 17 years of covering this league.

When it comes to Notre Dame hockey, I have too many moments to count. One of my favorites, though, is less momentous than mundane and meant more to the opposing team — Ohio State — than it did to the Fighting Irish.

It was Dec. 5, 1998, and it was the last regular-season game played in the teeny, tiny Ohio State Ice Rink before it was remodeled for women’s hockey and the ice surface made regulation size. That was the calendar year in which the Buckeyes went to the Frozen Four, and it was the calendar year before OSU moved into the Schottenstein Center.

It was also the calendar year in which the Buckeyes did not lose a game in that little barn, a tiny place that seated about 1,400 people with a sheet so small that Ron Mason called the game played on its surface “ping pong hockey.”

OSU had beaten Notre Dame 4-3 the night before, a game in which the Buckeyes scored all four goals in the second period. It was a good game, though; very competitive. The following night, that Dec. 5 game, was another story. It was all Ohio State until Brett Henning’s third-period goal for the Irish, and ND was frustrated. There was no way that the Buckeyes were going to lose that final game in the barn that they’d packed since January of that year, and the frustration the Irish felt resulted in 38 penalty minutes.

One of those — the penalty to Aniket Dhadphale at 14:51 in the second — is something I’ll never forget. You have to understand that the Notre Dame team, coached by Dave Poulin, was composed and calm most of the time. The Ohio State team, coached by John Markell, was known for its ability to lose its composure. As the game progressed, the Irish tried to draw penalties but the Buckeyes — uncharacteristically — wouldn’t bite.

Then at 14:51 in the second, Dhadphale was called for slashing. He was not happy. He was so not happy, in fact, that he threw his stick down the length of the ice and into the corner. That resulted in a 10-minute misconduct, which resulted in language out of Dave Poulin’s mouth that I can not repeat here.

In the greater scope of the CCHA, this was a small moment but was memorable when witnessed from the OSU press box — which was perched one small ladder-like flight of stairs above the benches, right over the ice. From the way the crowd erupted to the way Ohio State forward and noted hothead Chris Richards smiled and waved goodbye to Dhadphale, to Poulin’s reaction to the realization that the Buckeyes were about to do something remarkable in ending that year without a loss in that freezing old building, that moment was unforgettable.

It was uncharacteristic of Dhadphale, who deserves to be remembered for his tenacity and touch with the puck around the net in key situation, but it’s something I’ll never forget.

Players of the week

For the second week in a row, Western Michigan claims the best defenseman honors.

Rookie of the week: Miami forward Riley Barber, who had two goals and two assists in the RedHawks’ series with Providence.

Offensive player of the week: Ferris State junior Andy Huff, who had three goals and an assist in the Bulldogs’ series with Mercyhurst.

Defenseman of the week: Western Michigan junior Dan DeKeyser, who had a goal and an assist in the Broncos’ series with Canisius. DeKeyser also blocked four shots in two games.

Goaltender of the week: Alaska senior Steve Thompson, who had a .945 save percentage in two wins in the Brice Alaska Goal Rush.

My ballot

Here’s how I voted in this week’s Division I Men’s Poll. It’s early and — as Jeff Jackson said — it doesn’t really mean a lot.

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

And remember …

… to contact me. There’s email ([email protected]) and Twitter (@paulacweston) and the forum below, but if you want to share your favorite CCHA memories with me and the readers here, email me directly.