No longer the Hockey East newcomer, Notre Dame transitions to a speed-based defense

Notre Dame defenseman Robbie Russo (5) will be counted on as a veteran on the blue line (photo: Melissa Wade).

Notre Dame entered Hockey East last year as the reigning CCHA champion but found its new surroundings a big tougher than the old ones.

The Fighting Irish finished tied for seventh with a .500 league record. Although they went on to upset Boston College in the quarterfinals and thanks to a stellar nonconference record qualified for the NCAA tournament, the year still amounted to one of adjustment.

“In the CCHA we’d always be competing with Miami or Michigan for the league title, and there’d always be another team pecking away,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson says. “In this conference, it’s not quite like that. Five or six teams could win the league championship.

“Last year, the depth and the newness of the conference both impacted us. We finished in eighth place, but I think we were seventh in the country. So that tells you about the quality of the conference.”

This season, it may be more same-old, same-old.

“It’s going to be the same in some ways, because we’re going to five new buildings that we’ve never played in before,” Jackson says. “It’s going to continue for probably the next year here before we get totally acclimated.”

Jackson also will have to get a lot of new faces into the lineup, starting in net where stalwart Steven Summerhays has graduated.

“We have a sophomore coming back that played a few games for us, [Chad Katunar], and we have a real good young goaltender coming in, Cal Petersen,” Jackson says. “It inevitably works out to where one guy takes the job full time.

“I’m OK if they both play well. But if they’re both struggling, that’s another story.”

Up front, Vince Hinostroza impressed as a freshman, and Mario Lucia and Sam Herr also topped the 25-point barrier as sophomores. So there’s a strong nucleus.

“There are going to be some guys that we need to take a step,” Jackson says. “Plus, we have three freshman forwards who can contribute offensively as well.”

On defense, four freshmen come in while four seniors left. Whether the freshmen can replace those seniors will be the question.

“We’ve gone from a big defense to maybe a little bit more speedy, quick, puck-moving defense,” Jackson says. “It’s probably a little bit more similar to how we did things at Lake Superior, where we had smaller, smarter, quicker defensemen. I think part of that was coming into Hockey East.”

About the Fighting Irish

2013-14 record: 23-15-2

2013-14 conference record: 9-9-2 (seventh)

2014-15 predicted finish (coaches poll): Third

Key losses: G Steven Summerhays, D Stephen Johns, D Shayne Taker, F T.J. Tynan, F Bryan Rust

Key returnees: F Vince Hinostroza, F Mario Lucia, F Sam Herr, D Robbie Russo, D Andy Ryan

Why the Irish will finish higher than predicted in the coaches poll: With their first season of Hockey East under their belts, the Irish will handle their league opponents more like they did their nonleague foes last year (14-6).

Why the Irish will finish lower than the coaches poll: The Irish lost key players at every position and face a major question mark in net.