Notre Dame hockey: Can Irish answer second-half questions?

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- Another season's second half has begun for Notre Dame's hockey team, and this one is off to a familiar start in at least one way -- with a loss.

Beyond that, much is yet to be answered. Even that first loss is somewhat unique and could easily be explained away. The Irish were facing No. 5 Boston College, in Boston, outdoors at frigid Fenway Park on brittle ice, no less, and against a talented Eagles team that played the previous weekend, while the Irish hadn't had a game in nearly a calendar month.

But there were also the troubling bits of evidence that close followers of the Irish hockey program could pick out from last Saturday's 4-3 loss to BC. Things like penalties -- 10 of them in all, and many coming either in the Irish offensive zone or while they were on a power play. Or not being able to sustain momentum -- after falling behind 2-0 and 3-2, the Irish managed to tie the game, but quickly gave up that next goal to fall behind again.

Notre Dame's last game before the break, a 3-2 loss to Massachusetts, was a microcosm of these issues, which appear to be persisting into the start of the second half.

"There's parts of our game that have to get better. We can't be giving up momentum goals," said Irish coach Jeff Jackson. "We have to start having some success. We had a very tentative first half. Totally frustrating, I think for the players and for me. There's been a lack of consistency in our game."

Enter Alabama-Hunstville.

The worst team in Division I college hockey makes a return trip to South Bend this weekend for a pair of non-conference games that present an opportunity for the No. 15 Irish (10-8-1) to work out some kinks, get back into playing shape before Hockey East play kicks back into gear in two weeks, and perhaps find some of that consistency in their game.

Notre Dame beat UAH (1-21-0) once this season already, 5-2 in the first round of the Shillelagh Tournament on Nov. 29. The Chargers' only win came on Dec. 7, a 4-3 overtime victory at Bowling Green, the same team that just swept UAH at home last weekend by a combined score of 11-1.

This will be the first of three straight home doubleheaders that could be the salve for ND's familiar second-half woes, but Jackson refuses to let his team focus on the opponent.

"No matter who we play at this point in time, it's got to be about us," Jackson said. "I don't care if it's BC, who's one of the top five teams in the country, or it's Alabama, who's not, it's got to be about how we're playing."

It appears his players are heeding that message early in this second half.

"We're more worried about the second half lull that we've seen numerous times in our career here, but at the same time, we know that if we panic, we might as well fold it in now," said Irish captain Jeff Costello. "Because if we're all not on the same page and worrying about the uncontrollables, then we're not going to get anywhere."

Beers back

Mishawaka product Jared Beers is back practicing with the team after being suspended for the better part of a year.

Beers was suspended after his involvement in an incident at Brothers Bar and Grill, just off Notre Dame's campus, in which Beers was accused of assaulting a female bar manager. That case remains pending, but his status with the team has been resolved.

Whether Beers, a defenseman, will see much playing time is another issue. The Irish already have a steady unit of six defenseman playing regularly, plus two freshmen blue-liners who have rotated in at times. Beers essentially gives ND a ninth defenseman for six spots.

"He's going to have a tough time," Jackson said of Beers. "He's gonna have some work to do to earn his spot back in the lineup."

Jackson said it appears Beers stayed in shape since his Feb. 3, 2013 suspension.

"I give him a lot of credit, because based on how he's practicing, it doesn't look like he's missed a beat," Jackson said.

Planes, trains, automobiles

Thanks to two winter storms last week, the Irish had more than their fair share of travel trouble getting to and from Boston. Their flight out last Thursday was delayed by one day. Then they learned as they came off the ice Saturday night at Fenway Park that their Sunday flight home had already been canceled.

"We caught bad weather at the destination on the way out, and on the way in," Jackson said.

Monday was more of the same, with different plans being floated on how to get the team back home, one of which included the charter jet that had taken the Clemson women's basketball team back to South Carolina (a day late thanks to snow) from South Bend on Monday to come corral the hockey team, but that fell through as well. Ideas to fly to different airports and bus the team back were halted by the closure of the Indiana toll road on Monday.

Finally, after multiple false starts at the airport, the team boarded a flight Monday evening and managed to hit the ice for practice on Tuesday.

"It makes you appreciate when everything does work exactly how it was planned," said Thomas DiPauli, who along with teammate Vince Hinostroza, actually joined the team in Boston via Sweden, where the pair had been playing for Team USA in the World Junior Championships.

The USA's early ouster from that tournament by Canada, and then Russia, allowed both players to make it back in time to play against Boston College.

WHO: Alabama-Huntsville (1-21-0) vs. No. 15 Notre Dame (10-8-1)

WHEN: 7:35 Friday, 7:05 Saturday

WHERE: Compton Family Ice Arena

TICKETS: Limited availability, both lower arena and standing room only

TV: NBC Sports Network (Friday only)


TWITTER: @NDhockeySBT, @NDHockey