Payback on mind for Notre Dame hockey

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- On name alone, Northeastern is not exactly a heart-quickening opponent at this point in Notre Dame's inaugural run through Hockey East.

But the seeds for a new and bitter rivalry have already been planted, and could be further sown this weekend.

No. 11 Northeastern comes into Compton Family Ice Arena for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday as one of the hotter teams in the country, thanks to a 6-2-2 run that began in South Bend, just after Thanksgiving.

The Huskies won a non-conference matchup in the championship game of Notre Dame's Shillelagh Tournament on Nov. 30, when the Irish blew a 2-0 lead in a bitter 3-2 loss.

Add to the mix a series sweep of the Irish two years ago in South Bend by the scores of 9-2 and 2-1, and the Huskies are 3-0 at the Compton, a fact not lost on senior defenseman Kevin Lind.

"They've got our number and we know that," Lind said. "It's obviously not sitting well in our locker room."

This will be an important conference series for the 15th-ranked Irish (14-8-1), who are just 3-5-1 and mired in eighth place in Hockey East. The Huskies (14-7-3, 7-4-1) are in second place behind Boston College, and success against them is important to Notre Dame's NCAA postseason resume.

"There's parts of me, watching film, that thinks they may be the team to beat in that league," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. "Northeastern is certainly one of the top few teams in the country, I think."

Both games will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network.

At the time of their first meeting this season, Notre Dame was missing four forwards due to injury -- Vince Hinostroza, Thomas DiPauli, Steven Fogarty, and Mike Voran. That forced Jackson to pencil in a fourth line of freshman Ali Thomas, walk-on Joe Aiken, and freshman Ben Ostlie, who is normally a defenseman. That fourth line hardly played at all, and the Irish showed signs of fatigue as the game wore on.

They were whistled for 10 penalties and Northeastern's Braden Pimm tied it halfway through the third period on the Huskies' eighth power play of the game. Northeastern then scored the game-winner with 2:42 to play, and afterwards, Irish defenseman Stephen Johns called the loss "demoralizing" and "embarrassing."

"They took some shots at some of our guys in the Shillelagh Tournament," Lind said after practice on Wednesday. "We were watching it on video and (Johns) got hit pretty hard from behind. Obviously, we don't forget about things like that."

Pimm has been on a tear since the Christmas break, with eight goals and 11 points in the last eight games. He is tied for seventh in the country with 15 goals and his linemate, Kevin Roy, is 10th in the nation with 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists). Their line will be the one to stop for Notre Dame.

The Irish will again be missing some key players -- DiPauli is doubtful with another upper body injury, and defenseman Robbie Russo is done for the rest of the season after being ruled academically ineligible.

On paper, this matchup still appears to favor the Irish, who have won four in a row and averaged five goals per game in the month of January. Notre Dame's strength is in its revamped cycle game, possessing the puck in the offensive zone and wearing down the opposition with shot after shot on goal. In last weekend's sweep of Lake State, the Irish fired 94 shots on goal. In contrast, the Huskies were outshot by Vermont last weekend, 79-43 in a series split, and average -5.33 shots per game, compared to ND's +9.09.

Generating not just shots but quality scoring chances will be key against Northeastern's goaltender, Clay Witt, who is second in the country with a .943 save percentage, and has proven he can be successful against a barrage of shots.

"We're playing a better goaltender than we've seen in the last few weeks," Jackson said. "We're going to have to find other ways to score than just offensive zone play."

Jackson intentionally shaped this year's schedule coming out of the Christmas break to gradually ramp up the opponent strength prior to his team's return to league play. After a series with 1-win Alabama Huntsville, followed by a series with sub-.500 Lake State, the Irish are riding a high into one of their most important series of the season. Next week is a trip to New Hampshire, followed by a home series with No. 20 Maine, and then another road trip to No. 7 Providence. That difficult league stretch will likely make or break the rest of Notre Dame's season, and it starts this weekend against Northeastern.

"They're going to test us to the max," Jackson said. "We've made some progress in some key areas, but we're playing a very good hockey team this weekend."