Nov 30, 2012, 8:48 AM EST
Following a controversial Thanksgiving series with visiting North Dakota last week, the Irish are back in action Friday and Saturday with their hardest stretch of the season behind them.
I think I talk about this every week, but Notre Dame just concluded an eleven-game streak against ranked opponents. After doing battle with Minnesota-Duluth, Northern Michigan, Western Michigan, Boston College, Michigan, and North Dakota, the Irish have come out 7-4 in that stretch and 9-4 overall. They are ranked sixth in the country and have a CCHA-best 5-1 conference record, putting them only one point behind Miami in the standings with two games in hand.
Head coach Jeff Jackson talks often about how he enjoys playing difficult teams in nonconference play. The players get excited, and the tough competition magnifies the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
“I’ve seen a lot of real positive things,” said Jackson, who praised his team’s penalty killing, goaltending, and shot selection. “The big thing is to be able to show the ability to be mentally tough in situations that come up throughout the game.
“The momentum shifted Saturday night’s game, where we were down two men right after they scored, and we still had the resiliency to score a goal and not give one up. And a year ago that would have been different, so it is about our mental toughness.”
This weekend features the middle series of a six-game homestand against Lake Superior State, the first unranked opponent the Irish have faced since they beat Nebraska-Omaha in the Ice Breaker finale Oct. 13.
“I’m relying on the fact that this is a different year than it was a year ago and that the three points on Friday night mean as much to them as the three points at Yost. And if we don’t, then we get beat,” Jackson said. “So hopefully we’ve grown up a bit and we’re better prepared to respond and play our game at the same level against any opponent.
“As far as I’m concerned, Lake Superior’s a great name. They’ve won a lot more national championships right now than Notre Dame has. I’m not looking at them lightly.”
Of course, Jackson was an integral part of those great Lake Superior teams. He was an assistant coach when the Lakers won the national championship in 1988 and was the head coach from 1990 to 1996, winning two more titles in ’92 and ’94.
“I have a lot of great friends up there, and I still have some close ties to the university. I want to see them do well when we’re not playing them,” he said. “You spent ten years of your life there and have a lot of great relationships with former players and staff, you certainly want to see them do well. It’s a tiny little school that did some pretty incredible things in the ‘90s and late ‘80s.”
This will be the first time Lake Superior plays in Compton Family Ice Arena. Its last appearance on campus was when the Irish defeated the Lakers in the second round of the 2011 CCHA playoffs. Overall, Notre Dame holds a 30-25-7 edge in the all-time series.
Despite Jackson’s respect for the program, Lake Superior will not pose the same fast-paced challenge as the talented slate the Irish have faced so far. Nevertheless, Jackson’s team needs to prove it can be the unranked teams along with the elite.
“I think keeping even-keeled during that stretch [of ranked teams] might have been the easy part because you like playing those teams – big games, you can get up for those,” sophomore Robbie Russo said. “What you do afterwards is important – just keep the same mindset and keep moving forward.
“League points are on the line, so it’s pretty important.”
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