Notre Dame's Robbie Russo showing his age

Steve Lowe
Tribune Corrrespondent

SOUTH BEND — For the first time, Robbie Russo is the old guy, but 'old' is more of a state of mind.

At 21, Russo isn't even the oldest defenseman on the Notre Dame hockey roster. That would be 23-year old Eric Johnson. For more perspective, Luke Ripley, one of four rookie defensemen the Irish are currently breaking in, is 20 years old, and Ali Thomas, a sophomore forward, is 23.

But in terms of experience, ability and responsibility assumed this season, Russo is the learned, wise, old man.

"It's a little weird being told you're the old guy," Russo said. "You get the puck a little bit more and guys are looking for you, which is definitely a good thing."

After graduating three dependable senior defensemen in Stephen Johns, Kevin Lind and Shayne Taker, Russo and Johnson took over that role this year. But with Johnson still sidelined by an ankle injury that has forced him to miss three of the team's four games, Russo, who has been paired with freshman Jordan Gross, has logged heavy minutes in the early going as the default leader of a precocious new crew.

Russo leads the team with a +6 and also in shots on goal with 21. He saw his first of the season get through into the net in Notre Dame's 5-3 win over Lake Superior State on Friday.

"Coach (Jeff Jackson) has always been telling me to shoot the puck, but I guess it takes four years to listen," Russo said. "Hopefully a few more start going in."

Russo's ascent hasn't been without its speed bumps. He missed the second half of last season due to an academic suspension after failing a class. Russo continued to practice with the team, and also one-on-one with volunteer coach Brock Sheahan, but come the weekend, he found himself watching from the stands.

Russo said he used that time to not only gain a new perspective on what was happening on the ice, but off it as well.

"Friday and Saturday kind of (stunk)," Russo said. "I was definitely angry with myself, but I tried to use those emotions every day to work hard in the weight room with (strength coach) Tony (Rolinski), and when I was on the ice with Brock.

"I just tried to be positive throughout the whole time."

Plus-minus ratings

If week one of the college hockey season exposed what Notre Dame is not, week two revealed what the Irish could be.

After shaky play in front of their goaltenders and a lack of offensive punch led to an 0-2 start, the Irish bounced back last weekend with 10 goals and a bushel of new-found confidence in sweeping Lake State, 5-3 and 5-1. Here are some plusses and minuses from the weekend...

Mario being Mario: Mario Lucia did what Mario Lucia does, which is score goals. Four on the weekend, including his first collegiate hat trick on Saturday. That puts him at five for the season, tied for second in the nation.

Line chemistry: Friday night, the trio centered by Steven Fogarty, with left wing Thomas DiPauli and right wing Anders Bjork, busted out in a big way, scoring three of Notre Dame's five goals, and finishing with 10 points. On Saturday, it was the Lucia-Vince Hinostroza-Austin Wuthrich pairing that accounted for four goals. Throw in a strong effort by freshman center Connor Hurley and rookie Jake Evans' first career goal, and the Irish playmakers seem to have found some chemistry.

Solid between the pipes: Chad Katunar allowed three goals for the second straight game, but did enough to keep his team in it to pick up its first win of the season Friday night. On Saturday, freshman Cal Petersen allowed just one goal and came up big in the first two periods to preserve Notre Dame's lead before the offense broke the game open in the third period with three goals. As long as both goalies play well, Jackson said he expects the time share to continue.

Power play power outage: Four games is a very small sample size, but the Irish are off to a concerning 0-for-16 start on the man advantage. To illustrate just how important scoring on the power play is, of the seven teams that have yet to record a power play goal this season, Boston and Notre Dame are the only teams at or above .500, and the Terriers (1-0) have only played one game in which they never actually went on the power play. The other teams on that list, a surprising group that includes Michigan, Providence, Wisconsin, Northeastern and Mercyhurst, have a combined record of 3-11-0 so far. At this point, last year's 18.2 percent conversion rate (good for 26th in the nation) is starting to look pretty good.

"It is a concern," Jackson said. "Especially when you get down to playing really good hockey teams, if you don't score on the power play, you're probably not going to win. It's as simple as that."

Second period (dis)comfort: Notre Dame has been outscored 6-1 in the second period and has yet to look effective in the middle stanza. Jackson identified turnovers and penalties as the main problems.

"It's about being comfortable going into the second period," Jackson said. "We're all geared up for the start of the game, but then I think we lose a little bit of that in the locker room between periods. If I have to go in there and do a song and dance for them between periods, I will."

Purple Eagles up next

Only two teams in college hockey are being outscored by a greater average margin than Notre Dame's previous opponent, Lake Superior State — Northeastern (-3.33 goals per game) and the next Irish opponent, Niagara (-4.00).

The Purple Eagles (0-4-0) have been outscored 22-6 in the early going, and could be the cure to ND's power play ills: Niagara's penalty kill has allowed six goals in four games. Despite the ugly numbers, Jackson said the Irish won't look past the Purple Eagles to Halloween, when Hockey East play begins with Vermont in town.

"We don't have the experience or the right to take teams lightly," Jackson said. "You cannot take time off in a game. It's going to catch up to you."

Johnson is not expected to play this weekend, nor is freshman Tony Bretzman, sidelined by mononucleosis. Fogarty is also "dinged up" according to Jackson, but practiced Wednesday wearing a no-contact red jersey. It is not clear if he'll be available against Niagara.

Notre Dame's Robbie Russo, left, is one of the veterans of the team. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)