Notre Dame has been sailing along pretty smoothly this season in this, the final campaign of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. UND is 15-9-0 overall, ranked No. 7 in the nation, and is tied with Western Michigan for first place in the CCHA with an 11-5-0 league mark.
So what if the Irish are winless in their last four games?
Notre Dame has gone 0-4-0 since posting a 1-0 victory at league opponent Michigan State on Jan. 11. Since then, the Irish have recorded losses to MSU and Bowling Green and suffered a two-step sweep at the hands of visiting Alaska (Fairbanks) last weekend at the Compton Family Ice Arena.
All isn’t lost in South Bend, however, as the Irish strive to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, when they made the Frozen Four in Minnesota and then fell to eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals.
Notre Dame has made the NCAA Tournament three times under eighth-year head coach Jeff Jackson, who won two national titles at Lake Superior State in the 1990s. The team will look to right its listing ship this weekend at home against Ferris State, which made the national final in Tampa last year only to fall to Boston College, just as UND did in 2008 in Denver.
"There's definitely no panic in the room," said junior defenseman Kevin Lind to the South Bend Tribune. "Every team has their rough spots. We're just happy it's getting out of the way now instead of later."
Junior forward Anders Lee is one of the top goal scorers in the nation, with 13 tallies through his first 24 games. His classmate, Steven Summerhays, has gone 13-8-0 in goal for the Irish in 22 contests, with a 1.78 goals against average and a .927 save percentage.
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"We weren't going to go all year without any adversity, and I'd rather face the adversity now, rather than winning the league, going into the first round of the playoffs, and getting eliminated,” said Summerhays.
Last year the Irish finished 19-18-3 overall and out of the NCAA Tournament running, after being picked by many to contend for the national title. The team lost seven of its last 10 games and was eliminated in the second round of the CCHA Tournament by Michigan, which is having its own struggles this season.
Notre Dame is suffering its biggest struggles in putting the puck in the net—or rather, not being able to, despite having outscored its opposition by 20 goals to date.
As a team, the Irish are averaging 2.83 goals per game, which puts them in the middle of the Division I pack. Defensively, though, they’re permitting just 2.00 goals per game on the nose, which puts them in the top five in the nation.
The statistical trends are similar with special teams.
Notre Dame is just 17-of-108 (15.7 percent) on the power play, putting it in the top 35 among the nearly 60 Division schools. Conversely, the Irish are in the top 10 in penalty killing, having eliminated 90-of-101 (89.1 percent) of opponent's man-advantage opportunities. UND is also averaging 13 penalty minutes per outing.
Perhaps the Irish still just need to shake some residual rust from the long layoff just before and after Christmas. UND did not play in any holiday tournaments and was off from Dec. 16 through Jan. 7. The Irish then lost at Minnesota before getting fully back to work at Michigan State two weekends ago.
Despite its recent troubles, the program has still come a long way in the last decade.
The Irish, who were resurrected as an independent in 1968 and have been CCHA members since 1992, will join the Hockey East Association next year, and they will play the likes of BC, Boston University, Maine, New Hampshire and Providence.
Notre Dame had never even made the NCAA Tournament until 2004, under former head coach and longtime NHL veteran Dave Poulin, and has now qualified for the big dance five times in all.
They’d like to complete the six-pack this spring, before the CCHA disbands for good and Hockey East beckons.
“When you’re in a slump, you just want to focus on getting back to the basics,” said Summerhays to The Observer at Notre Dame. “We don’t want to try and change what we’ve been doing throughout the year, because what we did had a lot of success.”
The Irish will try and regain that success starting tonight against Ferris State, when they will wear new jerseys that will be auctioned off afterwards in support of the military family charity, Defending the Blue Line.
If UND improves its play past the opponent’s blue line and lights the lamp more often, maybe three or even four times per game, it’ll be looking to not only book its ticket to Detroit for the CCHA finals in March. It will also hope to visit Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four in April.