Notre Dame hockey: Postseason offers Irish fresh start

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- Notre Dame's current hockey unbeaten streak began a month ago with an eraser.

Following a difficult road sweep at the hands of unranked New Hampshire, longtime Notre Dame equipment manager Dave Gilbert entered the locker room and erased the Hockey East standings on the board.

At the time, the Irish were near the bottom of the league, struggling to create any momentum in their inaugural Hockey East season. It was a symbolic gesture to not only wipe away the reminder of the team's low league stature, but also to remind them that what could happen two weeks down the road was less important than what would happen the next night.

"It made a statement because everyone saw the board, and that's where we tape our sticks before practice, so it's not like anyone missed it," said senior left winger Jeff Costello. "It was a simple message, and whether consciously or subconsciously, that was our new mentality moving forward."

"Dave's done that before," said Irish coach Jeff Jackson. "I didn't tell him to do it, but that's our staff. Everybody reads off each other.

"Once we got into that situation where we were near the bottom of the standings instead of near the top, it got frustrating. Even if we'd win a game, it was tough to look at the standings."

On Feb. 7, Notre Dame suffered a bitter home loss to Maine when a game-tying goal was waved off in the closing seconds, but the Irish responded with a life-infusing victory the next night when Bryan Rust scored two goals in the final minute-and-a-half to beat the Black Bears, 3-2.

That win kicked off a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1), which includes Saturday's hugely important 2-1 overtime victory at No. 1 Boston College.

The Eagles were riding a 19-game unbeaten streak (17-0-2), but beating BC when it was ranked No. 1 is nothing new to the Irish, who have done that five times now. It was also Notre Dame's second win against the top-ranked team this season, after a 4-1 home victory on Nov. 8 over then-No. 1 Minnesota.

The win vaulted Notre Dame to 11th in the USCHO.com national poll, 10th in the Pairwise rankings, and in solid position to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. But the Irish still have chances to improve their resume and lock in a bid with the start of the Hockey East tournament Saturday when they host Boston University.

The Terriers were in South Bend just two weeks ago, losing both games 2-0, but finished a home-and-home sweep of Northeastern last weekend to earn their first road victory of the season. Nine of Boston's 10 wins this year have been against ranked opponents.

"This will be a big test for us, because BU is probably one of the teams that gave up more trouble turning pucks over than anybody we've played in the second half," Jackson said. "BU played us tough here. Both games were dogfights right down to the end."

If the eighth-seeded Irish win Saturday, they'll likely move on to a rematch at top seed Boston College in a best-of-three series, unless either No. 11 seed Merrimack (at Maine) or No. 10 Massachusetts (at Vermont) musters a weekend upset.

The Irish also will root for previous opponents against whom they collected road victories earlier this season to help boost their own standing. Minnesota Duluth (18th in the Pairwise) hosts Nebraska Omaha, and Western Michigan (23rd) takes on the team just ahead of Notre Dame in the Pairwise, No. 9 North Dakota, in Grand Forks.

Not that they'll be doing any of that, at least out loud. Not after their slate was wiped clean last month.

"Once we saw that, it was an eye-opener," said sophomore left winger Mario Lucia. "What other teams do, it doesn't matter because we just have to win games."

Goalie of month

Steven Summerhays was named the Hockey East goaltender of the month on Monday after going 4-2-1 with a 1.42 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in February. He recently set the Notre Dame career shutout record with 13, and also a had a program-record shutout streak of 231:50, which was snapped at Boston College on Saturday.

In Notre Dame's six-game unbeaten streak, Summerhays' numbers have been ever better: a 0.82 goals-against and .970 save percentage.

On the season, Summerhays is 18-11-2, leads the nation with seven shutouts, is sixth in goals-against (1.87), and 10th in save percentage (.929), which are all career highs for the senior from Anchorage.

Summerhays was also named one of 18 finalists for the inaugural Mike Richter Award, which will honor the NCAA's top goaltender.

Costello traded

Notre Dame captain Jeff Costello saw his NHL rights traded on Tuesday, from Ottawa, the team that drafted him in 2009, to Vancouver in exchange for defenseman Patrick Mullen.

In his senior season, the 23-year-old Costello is fourth on the team with 11 goals, sixth with 19 total points, and leads the team in penalties (29 for 69 minutes).

"I wasn't expecting it," Costello said Wednesday. "I was taking my car into the shop and my phone was blowing up. It's really exciting. It seems like it's going to be maybe a better suit for my career, personally."

WHAT: Hockey East Tournament, first round

WHO: Boston University (10-20-4) vs. No. 11 Notre Dame (20-12-2)

WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Compton Family Ice Arena

TICKETS: Standing room only avaiilable.

RADIO: WHFB (99.9 FM)

TWITTER: @NDHockeySBT; @NDHockey