Jan 18, 2013, 11:55 AM EDT
Ever since media day – before the first puck of the season dropped – the Notre Dame hockey team has made it abundantly clear that this is a new year. Last year’s disappointing finish is a completely separate entity from this Fighting Irish squad.
Coming off a Frozen Four appearance, the 2011-2012 team squandered a 13-6-3 start by finishing the regular season 4-10 and narrowly missing an NCAA tournament berth.
True to their promises of a new season, the Irish finished 2012 on a six-game winning streak en route to a 14-4 record going into Christmas break. But a 1-3 start to 2013 has some of the players thinking about that other team from a year ago that seemingly lost its way midway through the season.
“Obviously last year our second half was unacceptable,” junior forward T.J. Tynan said. “I think everyone who played last year knows how that felt and how much that hurt. And that’s definitely not a feeling we want to have again, so I think we’ll be looking forward to turn this thing around this weekend.”
It isn’t time to panic yet for the Irish, who are first in the CCHA and nationally ranked in the top five going into the weekend series with Alaska. But these players – many of whom have experienced both late-season hot streaks and disappointments – are too experienced to ignore the possibility of a downward spiral.
“With the season we had last year, we don’t want to go through another thing like that. I think we’re a mature group enough that we understand we can’t let this slip away from us,” junior defenseman Stephen Johns said. “The guys are making sure we play this weekend like it’s our last weekend of the year.”
To be fair to the Irish, the last four games were against three different teams in a span of eight days, all on the road. Conflicts with final exams forced a game against Bowling Green to be moved from Dec. 14 to Tuesday of this week, and Notre Dame and Minnesota agreed to play the Tuesday before that to allow the World Junior Championships to conclude. A two-game series at Michigan State was stuck between the two.
Not only did the players have to deal with the fatigue of such a schedule, but they also faced mounting mental exhaustion. Preparing for three different opponents in eight days leaves a lot to learn in little practice time. Despite the challenge and admitted concern over “information overload,” head coach Jeff Jackson isn’t one to make excuses for his team.
“Really it’s about us. We should be able to make plays regardless of what type of system we’re playing against,” he said. “It’s really about us executing what we’re supposed to be doing better, and it shouldn’t be about the opponents.”
In the midst of preparing for six games in 12 days, the Irish have also seen injuries to Shayne Taker, Jeff Costello, and Mike Voran that have ramifications beyond losing three talented players. Jackson said one of the biggest challenges has been developing chemistry within new lines that have formed because of the injuries.
“Because of one injury, you need one line change, and then another injury, you need another line change,” he explained. “And then all of a sudden you’ve got four lines that are totally different just because you’re elevating guys from other lines.”
Coming off injuries, a bizarrely packed schedule, and a disappointing roadtrip, a normal home series might be the stabilizing factor the Irish need. They haven’t played in the Compton Family Ice Arena since Dec. 8.
“Playing at home is awesome,” Johns said. “Instead of being on a bus or in a hotel room, you can sleep in your own bed. You feel more comfortable. You get to go through your own routines in your own rink. There’s something about it – you feel better about yourself, you feel more confident, especially with the fans.
“They’re not cheering, ‘Alabama.’”
The Irish have had some success at home against the Nanooks, with an 18-9-1 advantage all-time. Notre Dame has also bounced back from a 2-3 home start to the season to end the first half on a five-game winning streak in the Compton. Today’s game starts at 7:35, while the puck drops at 7:05 on Saturday.
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