Notre Dame hockey: Has Irish learned enough to find ‘magical chemistry?’

STEVE LOWE
SBT Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- Two stretches during last season were particularly telling for Notre Dame’s hockey team: a long break in December and a short, emotional turnaround in late March.

Head coach Jeff Jackson highlighted these two areas Monday at ND hockey’s media day as specific concerns for this year’s team.

First, the long mid-season break, which has led to a glaring downturn in play in the month of January the past two seasons. Next, the quick change of winning a conference title, followed by transitioning right into the NCAA Tournament the following weekend.

These are the stretches where the Fighting Irish, ranked No. 7 in the country in the first preseason poll, need to see development if they want to improve on last year’s early exit from the tourney, when they lost as a No. 1 seed, 5-1, to fourth-seed St. Cloud State.

“The only times when we’ve had problems in the NCAA Tournament is when we won in Detroit,” Jackson said. “The other years we went further, we actually didn’t win in Detroit.”

But Detroit won’t be an option now as ND has traded the Motor City for Beantown. Notre Dame (25-13-3 last year) won the final CCHA Tournament title in Detroit in late March, but that league has folded and now it’s time to prepare for Hockey East. There are familiar teams there, including regular opponent Boston College, but also a host of new faces, new places, new styles, and new officials to prepare for and get used to.

As Jackson pointed out, the Irish are the only team in the league who will experience this radical of a change.

“They only have to worry about one new team, we have to worry about 10 new teams,” Jackson said. “Hockey is hockey, but there’s going to be an adjustment period for us.”

The good news for the Irish, who were picked to finish third (in a tie with New Hampshire) in Hockey East, is returning a roster filled with veteran players, including 10 seniors. Many of those seniors played a role on ND’s last Frozen Four team in 2011 as freshmen, and they’ve seen a roller coaster ride’s worth of ups and downs in their previous three years, maybe none more than starting goaltender Steven Summerhays.

“We’ve been through these situations before and it’s about learning from them,” said Summerhays, who went 21-12-2 and turned in a solid 2.01 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. “I’d like to think we’ve learned from all those situations.

“Hopefully, with everything we’ve been through, we’ll be able to put it all together and find that magical chemistry we’re looking for.”

In the offensive zone, Notre Dame will have to replace 20 goals from Anders Lee, who signed with the New York Islanders in April. Lee’s linemates, newly-minted captain Jeff Costello, and assistant captain Bryan Rust, will provide some of that scoring punch. Rust is the leading scorer back from last year’s team with 15 goals and 19 assists for 34 points.

The next top goal scorer back is sophomore Mario Lucia, who got a late start last year because of a broken ankle early in the season, but showed great instincts around the net. Lucia finished with 12 goals and could be the next big goal scorer for the Irish.

“People are going to have to step up, me and throughout the team,” Lucia said. “We have a real deep forward group.”

That group also includes T.J. Tynan, who will try to recapture the scoring touch he flashed his freshman year when he tallied 23 goals. Jackson also pointed to sophomore Steven Fogarty and freshman center Vince Hinostroza as two youngsters who could add significant punch this season.

On the blueline, five of the top six defenseman are back, led by mercurial assistant captain Stephen Johns, who nearly signed with the Chicago Blackhawks in the offseason, but ultimately chose to return to South Bend for his senior season.

“I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business here with the team,” Johns said. “It just seemed right for me to come back for my senior year with 10 of my best friends.”

Notre Dame returning goaltender Steven Summerhays had a 21-12-2 mark and turned in a solid 2.01 goals-against average last season.  
“Hockey is hockey, but there’s going to be an adjustment period for us,” Notre Dame hockey head coach Jeff Jackson said of playing in a new conference, Hockey East.