Early outlook still hazy for Irish icers

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND - Was it just a bump in the road for a young, promising team?

Or a harbinger of struggles to come?

What should be made of No. 12 Notre Dame's 5-4 hockey exhibition loss to Waterloo last Sunday?

After a few days of practice and film review to digest his team's fast-to-flat performance, Irish coach Jeff Jackson's answer to those questions was the equivalent of pulling an old Magic 8-Ball from the junk closet and giving it a shake.

Outlook hazy. Ask again later.

"I'll probably tell you more after (Friday)," Jackson said during Thursday's Ice Breaker Tournament media session. The Irish officially open their season Friday night at 7:35 against Rensselaer. No. 1 Minnesota faces Minnesota Duluth in the first game at 2 p.m.

"We're going to be facing much higher-quality teams than what we were facing last Sunday. That's going to expose any deficiencies that we may have. The only saving grace for me was that it was an exhibition game."

Playing without offensive star Mario Lucia and promising freshman forward Connor Hurley, the Irish started strong against Waterloo, scoring two goals early, and taking a 3-1 lead into the second period. But not long after Jackson removed sophomore starter Chad Katunar from goal and inserted highly touted freshman Cal Petersen, things began to turn sour for the Irish.

Petersen let in two of the first nine shots he faced in the second period, after Katunar saw only five in his half game of work. Waterloo got two more on the rookie goalie in the third period on just four shots, including the eventual game-winner by Matt Amadio, who slipped a breakaway shot past Petersen on his short side.

Jackson felt that performance wasn't all on his young goaltender.

"He wasn't as sharp as he can be, but we left him out to dry a couple times," Jackson said. "I'm not going to read anything into it. We know he's an exceptional goaltender. ... As long as he doesn't lose his confidence. I am a little concerned about that."

The loss was Notre Dame's first exhibition stumble since falling 7-2 in November 2004 to a U.S. Under-18 team led by current NHL stars Phil Kessel and Jack Johnson. The Irish finished that season with the worst record in program history at 5-27-6, a mark that ultimately led to coach Dave Poulin's resignation and the eventual hire of Jackson.

But there were some big differences between that loss and this one. The '04 debacle happened nearly two months into what was already looking like a middle-of-the-road season at best. That loss to the Under-18 team magnified the talent gap in the Irish program and set the tone for what became an unprecedented run of futility. Under Jackson, the program has seen a consistent influx of gifted players that simply weren't coming to Notre Dame a decade ago.

How those players respond to this early adversity will be the big question going forward.

"It's an exhibition game, so I'm not going to go crazy about it," Jackson said on Sunday. "That's why we play this game. It's more of an evaluation than anything else."

Check back next week to find out what Irish team showed up for the real season.

"I think guys have refocused and they understand that, in college hockey, you can't take time off, you can't take shifts off," said senior assistant captain Eric Johnson. "It was a wake-up call for us."

Lucia ready for RPI

Jackson will welcome the return of his top returning goal scorer in Lucia, who resumed practicing this week and will play against Rensselaer. Hurley, on the other hand, remains day-to-day with his undisclosed injury, as is Johnson, a senior stalwart on defense.

"Hopefully by next week, or even by Sunday, we'll be close to having our full lineup," Jackson said. "We have our ideas what we want our lines to be, but we haven't been able to put them together yet."