Notre Dame hockey: League play awaits Irish

SBT Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- Notre Dame officially begins its Hockey East journey this weekend with two games at Vermont's venerable old barn, Gutterson Arena.

But it still doesn't feel quite like a conference game yet to the Irish. After so many years in the CCHA, traveling to New England to begin league play still seems like preparing for a non-conference opponent.

"When you're so accustomed to playing Lake Superior and Bowling Green and Michigan all these years, and then all of a sudden now you're playing Vermont, it is a little different," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. "That's the biggest challenge for us this year."

To make things more interesting for the Irish, still ranked No. 2 in the country after a two-game split at Minnesota Duluth last week, Vermont will be making its season debut at home, as well as celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend.

"It doesn't matter who we were going to play, they're going to be geeked up for us," Jackson said. "That's just the way things are going to be all the time.

"You go in with a target on your back and be prepared to face the opponent's very best."

The Catamounts picked up their first win of the season at Penn State last Saturday, 5-2. The week before, they lost and tied at North Dakota.

Notre Dame (5-1-0) will be making the trip without two key players, both injured last weekend at Duluth. Forward Thomas DiPauli went down Friday night after a hard hit, and defenseman Eric Johnson was lost Saturday in the second period after a hit from behind by the Bulldogs' Tony Cameranesi, who was whistled for a five-minute boarding penalty. Both have "upper body injuries" according to Jackson, who said that both players will likely miss several weeks.

That will result in more ice time for Notre Dame's two freshman defensemen, Justin Wade and Ben Ostlie, the latter of whom made his debut last weekend.

"I thought he played well," Jackson said. "Our top four (defensemen) haven't changed, it's just a matter of how we insert the younger guys."

Weekend of firsts

The Irish suffered their first loss in that Saturday game, 4-1, behind three UMD goals in the first period. Freshman goaltender Chad Katunar made his first start in that game and suffered the loss.

Katunar's first college experience actually came in Friday's 3-2 win, when he had to relieve starter Steven Summerhays in the third period. Summerhays earned a major penalty and game misconduct for facemasking after a collision with a Duluth player in the ND net. Jackson was not pleased with his senior goalie's reaction.

"I had a serious talk with him," Jackson said. "(ND defenseman) Andy Ryan pushed that guy into Summerhays, and he acted poorly. He responded poorly to it."

Seconds after Katunar came in, a second Irish player went to the penalty box, giving Minnesota Duluth a 5-on-3 power play — not exactly an easy situation for a freshman goalie's college debut.

"He'll probably be able to tell his grandkids about that some day," Jackson said. "It's the most challenging situation he could be in.

"He held on and helped us win that game. That was one of the reasons I decided to come back with him (Saturday night)."

Hinostroza top rookie

First-year center Vinnie Hinostroza earned Hockey East's Rookie of the Month for October after scoring three goals and five assists for eight points, which leads the Irish. Hinostroza is also second on the team with 17 shots on goal, has a +3 rating, and has scored a point in five of Notre Dame's six games so far.

"We had Vinnie play an extra year of junior hockey just for this reason, to make sure he was strong enough to have an impact as a freshman," Jackson said of the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Hinostroza. "We knew he had the talent. He could have come in last year, but I would have been a little concerned about his body. He's not the biggest cat in the world."

Tons of special teams

Notre Dame leads the nation in power plays attempted with 53 already through six games (8.83 per game) and is tied for second with 10 power play goals. But the Irish are in the middle of the pack in conversion rate at 18.9 percent and would like to take better advantage of all these man-advantages.

One solution could rest with senior T.J. Tynan, who is second on the team with seven points, and tops with six assists. His only goal so far this year was a game-winner, and Tynan is one of the best pure goal scorers on the team, but in ND's six games, he's only recorded eight shots on goal.

"We're constantly making him think about shooting the puck more," Jackson said. "And Robbie Russo's the other one. Robbie's got to shoot the puck more on the point with that unit."

On the other side of the special teams coin, the Irish have gone on the penalty kill 35 times (ninth-most in the country) but are converting at a very high rate. Notre Dame has killed off 94 percent of those opponent power plays (33-for-35) which is third best in the country.

“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.