SOUTH BEND — To say that Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson is surprised by the development of his young defensive corps would be an understatement.
The four sophomore defensemen — Spencer Stastney, Nate Clurman, Nick Leivermann and Charlie Raith — have performed admirably in the 8-2-2 start by No. 5/4 Irish, who take a break from the Big Ten Conference this weekend to play a home-and-home series with No. 16/15 Bowling Green of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
In particular, the 5-foot-10, 167-pound Raith’s play has been a pleasant development given the Winnetka, Ill., product did not dress for a single game during last season’s 23-14-3 campaign that included Notre Dame’s fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
On a defense that featured senior Bobby Nardella, juniors Andrew Peeke and Tory Dello, sophomore Matt Hellickson and freshmen Stastney, Leivermann and Clurman, the Irish coaching staff convinced Raith to keep the faith and take a redshirt season.
“I tried to approach every practice last season like it was a game,” Raith said. “I think that really helped me gain confidence and grow as a player. I made some pretty good gains physically this summer and I also focused on the mental side with visualization and meditation practice. Last year forced me to mature.”
Raith’s skating ability also has helped him overcome what he lacks physically and he’s off to a good start while paired with the offensively skilled Leivermann.
In Notre Dame’s 12 games, Raith has a goal (the game-winner in a 5-3 victory at Minnesota Nov. 2), an assist (the game-tying goal in Notre Dame’s 2-1 comeback over Ohio State Nov. 9) and has a plus-minus ratio of +4.
“Last season, despite that he didn’t play, Charlie got better,” Jackson said. “He made progress as the season went on. He really worked at his game. He’s contributing in a pretty good way. We rely on him being sound defensively and making good puck decisions, and that’s what he’s done.”
A year’s experience also has helped Stastney (5-foot-11, 189) and Clurman (6-2, 207), who each played in 39 games, and Leivermann (5-11, 184), whose powerful shot now anchors the Irish power play. The four sophomores have a combined six goals and 14 assists and, led by Clurman’s +11, are a combined +22 when on the ice in front of Cale Morris, a returning All-America goalie.
“They are making great strides in practice and games,” Morris said. “Nick and Charlie are keeping things simple and doing things right. It’s awesome to see them take steps every day.”
This weekend is the third of a four-week stretch during which the Irish will play at least one game on the road. Notre Dame followed up its three-point weekend at Wisconsin with just a two-point weekend at Michigan State. The Spartans rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the third period Saturday for a 3-2 triumph that made the 2½-hour bus trip back to South Bend seem longer for Raith and his teammates.
“We were frustrated last weekend,” Raith said. “It’s humbling when things don’t go well. But nothing gets you going again, gets you re-motivated than a little setback.”
Beginning with the Falcons, who Notre Dame hasn’t played since the teams were rivals in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Notre Dame plays a stretch of eight games against ranked teams. Following Friday’s game on the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena, the Irish will bus to Bowling Green for a Saturday evening game at the Slater Family Ice Arena.
Then next weekend, the Irish meet No. 14/12 Boston College in an away (Dec. 6) and home (Dec. 8) series followed by a two-game home series (Dec. 13-14) with Big Ten leader No. 7/7 Penn State. Then after Christmas, the Irish skate against No. 17/19 Western Michigan Jan. 3 (South Bend) and Jan. 5 (Kalamazoo).
“This stretch is going to be our toughest of the season,” Jackson said. “We’re going to need great goaltending from Cale and we’re going to need those young defensemen to make good puck decisions and defend well.”