Notre Dame hockey: After weird season, Irish tapping potential

STEVE LOWE
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame is looking to become the first No. 8 seed to win the Hockey East tournament.

Then again, Notre Dame is not a typical No. 8 seed.

These Irish have held their own against some of the nation’s best — including two wins against teams ranked No. 1 — in this roller coaster of a season that also saw them struggle to finish .500 in their new conference.

Injuries and roster losses contributed to a constant search for an identity, mostly during league play. As a result, they tumbled to an eighth-place finish, leading to a quarterfinal matchup at top-seeded Boston College last weekend. Despite what would appear at first blush to be substantial odds against them, the Irish won the series, 2-1, on BC’s home ice, to advance to the Hockey East semifinals this Friday at Boston’s TD Garden.

“It’s not like we’re a legitimate eighth-seed in my opinion,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “Even (Boston College coach) Jerry York said that. It was unfortunate that they got stuck having to play us, because we were better than an eighth-place team in that conference. But it’s still all what you do on the ice, and we didn’t do it on the ice.”

Back in early February, last weekend’s result, against what many feel is the best hockey team in the country, didn’t seem likely. But senior right wing Bryan Rust points to a specific game, at home against Maine, when the needle began to point back up for the Irish.

No, it wasn’t the stunning 3-2 comeback win on Feb. 8, when Rust scored two goals in the final 1:08 to shock the Black Bears. The turning point came the night before, when the Irish again were scrambling to come back, but had a tying goal in the final minute disallowed in a 2-1 loss.

“I feel like it turned the night before,” said Rust, who scored three goals last weekend, including the game-winner and series-clincher on Sunday. “That’s when our team realized that we can do anything.”

Since that frustrating-but-clarifying moment, the Irish have gone 8-1-1 and bought into Jackson’s cliched-but-true mentality of staying in the moment and not looking ahead. Every coach preaches taking it, “one game at a time,” but these Irish finally put that approach into practice, and the results have followed.

“We knew the capabilities and the potential was there,” said senior defenseman Stephen Johns, who also scored three goals and added an assist last weekend at BC. “It was just a matter of time.”

The 10th-ranked Irish (23-13-2) will now face defending tourney champs Massachusetts-Lowell at 5 p.m. in a game that will be televised nationally on NBC Sports Network. The seventh-ranked River Hawks (23-10-4), seeded second in the HEA tournament, swept the Irish at Lowell on Nov. 22-23 by the scores of 1-0 and 3-1. The Irish were missing five players, four of whom were forwards, due to a rash of injuries that forced Jackson to essentially play only three lines.

This time around, Notre Dame is healthy and firing on all cylinders as the Irish are tapping the potential they showed in November when they won six of their first eight games and rose to No. 2 in the national rankings.

The same could be said for UMass-Lowell, which began this season ranked No. 1 but struggled out of the gate. The River Hawks, who survived a scare from Vermont in three one-goal games last weekend, will lean on goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who leads the country with a 1.87 goals-against average and also a .938 save percentage in 25 games. As one would expect, Lowell leads the country in team defense, allowing 1.95 goals.

Where will they go?

Following Notre Dame’s series win at Boston College, the question is no longer whether or not the Irish will make the tournament, but where the selection committee will send them when the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced Sunday at noon.

This year’s regional sites are Worcester, Mass.; Bridgeport, Conn.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Cincinnati. Two of the top criteria for regional seeding is avoiding intra-conference matchups, and also maximizing attendance.

One headache for the committee will be what to do with all the Hockey East teams. Boston College is a lock for a No. 1 seed, and UMass-Lowell, Providence, and the Irish all look to be tournament-bound regardless of this weekend’s conference tournament outcomes. Throw in bubble teams Vermont, Northeastern and New Hampshire, and it could become very difficult for any scenario that does not include Hockey East matchups in the first round of the regionals.

Notre Dame appears to have a solid grip on either a No. 2 or 3 seed at this point, regardless of other results around the country. There is still an outside chance the Irish could slide up and claim the final No. 1 seed in a similar manner to last season, when they won the CCHA Tournament and went from a bubble team to a top seed in one weekend.

Minnesota, BC and Union College figure to claim the first three No. 1 seeds, but given Notre Dame’s tournament history, it might rather just pass on that final one this year.

In the three seasons the Irish were a No. 1 seed, they’ve gone 1-3 and have not advanced past the regional. Those were also the years they won the CCHA Tournament to earn an automatic bid.

In their other three appearances, all at-large bids and none seeded higher than 3, the Irish have gone 5-2 with both of their Frozen Four appearances, including a trip to the national championship game in 2008.

  • Freshman center Vince Hinostroza has been selected to the Hockey East all-rookie team.  Hinostroza has been a regular in the Irish lineup since the opening of the season and is second on the team in scoring with eight goals and 24 assists for 32 points. He has scored two game winners while being +8 for the season.

WHO: No. 8-seed Notre Dame (23-13-2) vs. No. 2 Massachusetts-Lowell (23-10-4)

WHAT: Hockey East tournament semifinal

WHEN: Friday, 5 p.m.

WHERE: TD Garden, Boston

TV: NBC Sports Network; NESN

RADIO: WHFB (99.9 FM)

NOTE: Winner of this game advances to the final on Saturday at 7 p.m. vs. the winner of Friday’s second semifinal between No. 3 Providence and No. 4 New Hampshire.