Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Know Your Enemy: Notre Dame

Part three of Know Your Enemy focuses on a school that's a traditional power in a number of sports, most notably among the most traditional powers there are in the biggest college sport of them all, football. In hockey, they're certainly not a traditional power, but they're absolutely a growing power - and as they showed this past season in making not just the NCAA tournament but also the Frozen Four during a season in which they were supposed to be rebuilding, they could be making the ascent to the top of the college hockey world in short order.

Notre Dame
Nickname: Fighting Irish
Location: South Bend, IN
Founded: 1842
Conference: CCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2011
Last Frozen Four: 2011
Coach: Jeff Jackson (7th season)
2010-11 Record: 25-14-5 (18-7-3-2 CCHA, 2nd place)
Series: Tied, 3-3-0
First Game: December 29, 1988 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 1, 2005 (South Bend, IN)
Last ND win: December 30, 2007 (Tampa, FL)

2011-12 game: October 21, 2011 (South Bend, IN)

Key players: D Sean Lorenz, sr.; F Billy Maday, sr.; D Sam Calabrese, jr.; G Mike Johnson, jr.; F Nick Larson, jr.; F Riley Sheahan, jr.; F Jeff Costello, so.; D Stephen Johns, so.; F Anders Lee, so; D Kevin Lind, so.; F Bryan Rust, so.; F T.J. Tynan, so.; F Mike Voran, so.; D Robbie Russo, fr.; D Andrew Ryan, fr.; F Peter Schneider, fr.; F Austin Wuthrich, fr.

Hockey at Notre Dame actually precedes Knute Rockne by a few years, as the Fighting Irish first put a team on ice in 1913, playing three games. That first season, however, was not followed by a second until 1920, when the earliest hockey in South Bend had its heyday for eight years.

This early incarnation of the Irish had its best year in 1922, when they won 8 of 9 games, including an undefeated record against other universities, including Michigan, Michigan State, and what is today Michigan Tech. The freshman goaltender on that team was Jim Crowley, one of the famed "Four Horsemen," but Rockne put an end to his hockey career when he was told to focus on football. The hockey program faded out after a 3-7-1 season in 1927.

Sporadic attempts to restart hockey in South Bend took place between the 1930s and the 1960s, but nothing stuck until a club team found footing in the early 1960s. That laid the foundation for a return to varsity hockey in 1968, when the team played the first of three seasons as an independent before joining the WCHA as the conference's 10th team in 1971.

In the WCHA, the Irish were never top dog, but they did put together a few decent seasons, finishing second on the conference table in 1973 and 1977. After 10 seasons in the conference, the Irish joined a breakoff faction that included Michigan, Michigan State, and Michigan Tech in joining the CCHA in 1981, a conference that had been a fairly minor group of programs to that point.

The move did not exactly propel hockey at Notre Dame to bigger and better things. After a fourth place finish in the 11-team league in 1982, the Irish tumbled to eighth in 1983 and following the season, the university announced that they would no longer be sponsoring varsity hockey, a decision that would put a growing program that had produced a Hobey Baker finalist just a year prior behind the eight ball for a good 20 years.

The Irish continued play in 1984 as a club team, and returned to varsity the next season as a non-scholarship independent team, still under the tutelage of Lefty Smith, the man who had been behind the bench in South Bend since the return of varsity hockey in the late 1960s. During their time as an independent program in the 1980s, the Irish were playing mostly club teams and lower division sides.

Ric Schafer became the program's second coach in 1987, immediately guiding the team to its best season it would see in the independent ranks, putting up a 27-4-2 record, but again, the team was playing schools like Arizona and Michigan-Dearborn. Following that season, however, Schafer began scheduling an increasing number of CCHA teams as he prepared the team to return to scholarships and, ultimately, the league itself, which they did in 1992.

The return to the CCHA was the first step, but the climb to the top was slow and difficult. Through most of the 1990s, the Irish struggled to stay out of the league's basement. Schafer stepped aside in favor of Irish alum Dave Poulin in 1995, but the team endured six straight losing seasons in their return to the CCHA, and 10 losing seasons in their first 11 through 2002.

Arguably, the first true rise of Notre Dame as any kind of college hockey power began in 2004, as the team reached 20 wins against a full D-I schedule for the first time since 1982, and earned an NCAA berth for the very first time, falling in the first round to Minnesota.

From that high, the drop to the valley was immediate - the Irish won just 5 games in the 2004-05 season, their lowest total in the program's modern history, which ended Poulin's tenure in South Bend. The school's choice of replacement left little doubt that the school intended to put a new emphasis on hockey: Jeff Jackson, who guided Lake Superior State to three consecutive national championship games in the early 1990s (winning two) took over, and the effect was almost immediate.

Jackson had the Irish back in the NCAA tournament in just his second season, as Notre Dame won a school-record 32 games in 2007 on their way to their first CCHA regular season and tournament titles. 24 wins in 2008 were enough to send the Irish to the NCAA tournament for a second straight year. Despite a low seed, the Irish blazed a trail through the tournament, making their first Frozen Four appearance with a 5-4 overtime victory over Michigan before falling 4-1 to traditional rivals Boston College in the national championship.

A second CCHA title came down in 2009, but the Irish fell victim to the mass upsets that swept the NCAA tournament that season, losing to Bemidji State in the first round.

After a step back in 2010 with a losing season, 2011 was expected to be a rebuilding year as the Irish roster was loaded with young players, but those expectations went out the door pretty quickly as the young talent proved more than capable of not only excelling on the ice, but leading the team to heights no one expected. Led by the freshman duo of T.J. Tynan (who went on to win the national rookie of the year award) and Anders Lee, the Irish lit up their schedule last season, losing back-to-back games only twice during the regular season en route to a second place finish. In the NCAA tournament, they successfully navigated a pair of tough Hockey East foes in Manchester, taking down a high-flying Merrimack team before defeating the homestanding UNH Wildcats for their second-ever trip to the Frozen Four. There, they gave eventual national champions Minnesota-Duluth a solid game before falling 4-3.

Notre Dame is still young, but the difference this year is that those young players played like veterans during their freshman years. Tynan and Lee were the team's top two scorers last season, both pumping in more than 20 goals and adding 20 assists, but the potential hardly ends there. Riley Sheahan was one of the final cuts from the Canadian World Junior Championship team last season. Billy Maday, Nick Larson, and Jeff Costello each added at least 10 goals last year as the Irish put up a Top 10 national showing offensively with only 3 games all season in which the team didn't score at least twice. 13 returning players had at least 10 points on the campaign, and they're joined by three freshmen coming from the renowned US Under-18 program in Russo, Ryan, and Wuthrich.

The Irish defense wasn't much to crow about last year, as games involving Notre Dame tended to be higher scoring affairs, but it was enough to get the job done more often than not given the way the offense was clicking. Mike Johnson was the man in net for the Irish and unless something radical happens, he should be the starter again this season. His numbers weren't standout - 2.62 GAA, .904 save percentage, but when your team's pumping pucks on the other team's net with frequency, the opposition isn't down there shooting on you as frequently.

Notre Dame may be one of the best, if not the best team on the Engineers' schedule this season. As a program, they have made serious strides in the last 10 years and are now only missing a national championship as the final step. Given the amazing talent seen in the class that will be entering their sophomore season in 2011-12, it's hard to see them not competing for one again during their stay in South Bend.

Unusual for a long trip, the Engineers will play Notre Dame just once in a Friday matchup at Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena (which opens in October, meaning the Engineers will be one of the first opponents there). Why? Well, in part, because attention at Notre Dame is focused on one place in October: football. The Irish take on USC the next day at Notre Dame Stadium in one of the most historic college football rivalry games out there, the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh. For that reason, if you can make it out to South Bend for the game, it is highly recommended. You may not have a better chance to see a brand new hockey arena and a renowned college rivalry in the same weekend, even though the Engineers are sure to be solid underdogs in Indiana.

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