Notre Dame hockey: Video tells story to Jackson

STEVE LOWE
SBT Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- While Jeff Jackson doesn’t cop to being a SABR-loving stats guru, he does see the benefit in statistical analysis beyond the usual numbers.

That’s why he dedicated a good portion of this summer studying thousands of video clips of every scoring chance both for and against his Notre Dame hockey team, and where they originated. What he discovered was a bit surprising.

“I kind of did my own sabermetrics, or whatever you want to call it, this past summer,” Jackson said. “You know where the chances are all coming from, but it’s about where they initiate from. We found that most of our chances come off the cycle in the (offensive) zone, which makes sense, it’s like halfcourt basketball. The second highest area was transition out of our own end, which surprised me a little bit.”

Those two areas were a focus for the team heading into this year, but Jackson admits they got away from that focus a bit during the first half of the season. A big reason was the high number of injuries the Irish endured, which resulted in more inexperienced players logging heavy minutes, and fewer opportunities to hold normal practices where these concepts could be refined.

That focus is back for the second half of the season.

Saturday’s 5-0 victory over Alabama Huntsville afforded an extended look at just how effective that cycle game, in particular, can be for the 15th-ranked Irish (12-8-1). The ability to work the puck in the corners and behind the net, essentially playing keep-away for extended periods and slowly bringing in fresh players one at a time while UAH was pinned in its own defensive zone and unable to bring on fresh players, was a huge advantage that quickly wore down the struggling Chargers, who are just 1-23-0 on the year.

“I think we had a number of shifts where their coach was literally yelling, ‘Ice the puck,’ to their team, because they were so tired,” said senior defenseman Kevin Lind. “This weekend, we weren’t playing that strong of a team, so we kind of got to figure out the new system, and it’s a lot of fun.”

A big key to the cycle game has been a greater involvement of the defensemen in the offense, which comes in part from watching, learning and co-opting some philosophies from others, most notably the defending Stanley Cup champions a few miles down the road in Chicago.

“I think they finally started watching the Blackhawks, who have been doing it for a while now,” said junior defenseman Robbie Russo. “They have the best D-corps in the league, so trying to mimic what they do, just dart down and cover for each other. I think if you can get a five-man cycle going, that’s pretty hard to defend.”

With Notre Dame’s power play working at a respectable 20 percent, and the penalty kill ranking eighth-best in the nation at 86.5 percent, scoring five-on-five goals is the greater focus at this point, and Jackson is using every statistical nuance he can unearth to figure out the best way to do that.

“If we can get two goals a game, five-on-five, it would certainly help us,” Jackson said. “Then we get the power play goal a game, and all of a sudden we’re at three and a half, four goals a game. That’s tough to get. That’s a high number in today’s game. Used to be a low number 15 years ago.”

DiPauli out, again

Thomas DiPauli’s snake-bit season in terms of health continues. The sophomore left winger will once again be unavailable for this weekend’s series against Lake Superior State after taking a shot to the ribs late in Saturday’s 5-0 game.

“It was a clean hit,” Jackson said. “We were concerned about him when it happened. It was a little scary. We thought he might have broken a rib or something, but he didn’t, fortunately.”

Jackson called it a lung contusion, but doesn’t expect DiPauli to miss more than this week, which would be the good news. DiPauli missed 10 games earlier this year after twice injuring his shoulder, but returned in time to compete for the U.S. team in the Junior World Championship in Sweden over the Christmas break.

Tunnel vision

This next stretch of games, and really the rest of this regular season, right up to Feb. 28 at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass., will determine whether the Irish are postseason contenders or pretenders. It begins with this weekend’s non-conference home series with Lake Superior State (11-10-1), and progressively gets tougher from there, culminating in that final matchup at No. 5 Boston College.

The Lakers are a familiar foe from Notre Dame’s CCHA days, and head coach Jim Roque, a former assistant under Jackson at Lake State in the 1990s, a familiar face.

With such familiarity, these games promise to be as tough and tight as they have been throughout the years, though Notre Dame holds a 7-2-1 record over the last 10 meetings.

If the Irish are as good as their No. 2 national ranking suggested they could be in the first month of this season, then this is a team that they need to beat.

“Every game matters to us right now,” Jackson said. “We can’t afford to take a night off.”

WHO: Lake Superior State (11-10-1) vs. No. 15 Notre Dame (12-8-1)

WHEN: 7:35 p.m. Friday; 7:05 Saturday

WHERE: Compton Family Ice Arena

TICKETS: Limited availability, general admission and standing room only for both games.

TV: NBC Sports Network (Friday only)

RADIO: WHFB (99.9 FM)

TWITTER: @NDHockeySBT; @NDHockey