Notre Dame hockey: Irish goal? Score more in tourney

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- Following Notre Dame's lost weekend in Massachusetts, hockey coach Jeff Jackson wasn't making excuses.

He certainly could have, given the injuries his Fighting Irish are dealing with. Down four forwards, three of them centers, including leading scorer Vinnie Hinostroza, plus defenseman Eric Johnson, Notre Dame struggled against a strong UMass-Lowell team that began this season ranked No. 1 in the country.

The River Hawks swept Notre Dame, 1-0 last Friday and 3-1 on Saturday, thanks in large part to a stellar weekend performance by goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who stopped 74 shots.

"We had plenty of chances to score," Jackson said. "Their goaltender played well. (The injuries) impact us more on special teams than any other situation."

The power play has suffered without center Steven Fogarty, and missing top penalty killers Thomas DiPauli and Mike Voran was key against Lowell. The Irish came in with the nation's top penalty kill, having given up just four power play goals in 57 chances, but the River Hawks scored three of their four goals on the man advantage.

The sweep dropped Notre Dame (8-5-1) five spots to 11th in this week's national poll. The good news for this weekend's Shillelagh Tournament at the Compton Family Ice Arena is that Johnson could be back to help shore up the blueline.

The bad news is, he could be the only one. Jackson called all five injured players "day-to-day" but mentioned only Johnson as a probable return.

In place of the missing forwards, freshman defenseman Ben Ostlie and walk-on Joe Aiken have suited up on the fourth line, but Aiken played just one shift in the two games at Lowell.

If the Irish can get through this weekend and next, when UMass comes to South Bend, and scratch out a couple victories in the process, they'll have the rest of December to get healthy for the 2014 half of the season, which kicks off with Boston College outdoors at Fenway Park.

"We've got to try to win games in the meantime," Jackson said. "Just try to get back on track a bit from an offensive perspective."

Until his team returns intact, it's uncertain who will step in and provide production. Missing Fogarty and Hinostroza, who center two of ND's top scoring lines, are making that more difficult.

"That takes away from our ability to have guys up the middle that can make a play," Jackson said. "But it can't be an excuse. We played well enough to win both games (against Lowell)."

Repeat opponents

This weekend's Shillelagh Tournament will feature, besides host Notre Dame, three teams that are either making a return trip to the Compton this year, or will do so later in the season.

Western Michigan (5-5-2) opened Notre Dame's season in October, and will face Northeastern (8-5-0) at 4:05 Friday. The Huskies return on Jan. 24-25 for a pair of Hockey East games. At 7:35 on Friday, the Irish will take on Alabama-Hunstville (0-12-0), which will make a second appearance in South Bend on Jan. 10-11.

Playing as the home team, the Irish will have the benefit of having the last line change during stops in play. That may not sound like a big deal to most, but for a team struggling with injuries and trying to keep its available players as fresh as possible by playing shorter shifts and changing as often as possible, that could turn out to be crucial.

"It helps to be at home, around our fans, and also to have last change, which is a factor right now for us, more so than normal," Jackson said. "The great thing, it's a tournament environment, so we actually get to play for something.''

Who: Western Michigan (5-5-2) vs. Northeastern (8-5-0); Alabama-Huntsville (0-12-0) vs. No. 11 Notre Dame (8-5-1)

When: Friday and Saturday, 4:05 and 7:35 (Notre Dame plays the late game both nights. Friday results will determine Saturday matchups)

Where: Compton Family Ice Arena

Tickets: Limited availability

Radio: WBND (99.9 FM)

Internet streaming:

Twitter: @NDHockeySBT; @NDHockey