March 29, 2014
By Josh Dempsey
Notre Dame, Ind. - This Saturday marks a much anticipated NCAA Tournament first round rematch between the Fighting Irish and the St. Cloud State Huskies.
Almost a year ago to the day from Saturday's game, the Huskies handed the Irish a 5-1 loss in the opening round of the 2013 NCAA tournament, dismantling Notre Dame's hope of bringing home its first ever hockey national championship. Senior Jeff Costello, captain of this year's Irish hockey team, hopes his third trip to the NCAA tournament bears more fruit than the last two times he's been there.
Costello was on the 2011 and 2013 teams that both made it to the NCAA tournament, but neither team was able to attain the national championship banner that the Compton Family Ice Arena is lacking. In 2011 the Fighting Irish made it to the Frozen Four but were defeated 4-3 by the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, the eventual champions.
Jeff Costello claims that the team has a different mentality at the end of the season this year than it has had previously.
"I think the biggest difference between this year's team and last year's team is the first half of the season we had this year," he says. "We didn't get out to a great start in Hockey East, and we had a ton of injuries. But during the second half of the season, we've just been working at the building blocks of what we need to do to win."
"Part of our success has been the mindset we've had going into a lot of big games. We knew we were going to be playing some of the top teams in the nation and we knew we had to bring our A-game. When you do that, you're coming out, you're playing intense, you're playing as hard as you can, and it really becomes a war out there. We wanted to prove to everyone else that we can beat those teams and we could be one of the top teams in the nation."
This difference in the team's play has been noticeable. Notre Dame beat Boston College, the No. 1 team in Hockey East for a majority of the year, three times in the last month. In their March 14th match-up against BC in the Hockey East Championships, Notre Dame handed the Eagles a hefty 7-2 loss.
But the success against Boston College could not be carried over into the following weekend where the Irish lost to UMass-Lowell in the semifinals.
"Although we took a step back lack weekend against UMass-Lowell, I'm 100-percent confident we can rebound from it," Costello says. "We've got the youth and enthusiasm of the younger guys as well as 11 seniors who are all playing in their final NCAA tournament. I think we absolutely have it in us to come back and be ready to play our best hockey come Saturday."
Costello says the mentality of last year's team had an adverse effect in the NCAA tournament, and he thinks the Irish have made the necessary corrections to go on a run.
"We were playing great hockey at the end of last year. We were on a 10-game winning streak and we'd won the CCHA championship," he describes. "When that happens, you can get into the mindset that you're invincible. That definitely could have played a part in it - getting to be seeded No. 1 in our region and listening to what people say can get to your head."
Although the Irish are one of the nation's hottest teams with an 8-2-1 record over their last 11 games, last weekend proved they can be vulnerable. That might not be such a bad thing, though.
"I really think it could be a blessing in disguise that we got essentially dominated last Friday against UMass-Lowell," Costello explains. "It brought us back down and deflated our big heads. It really shows you that you can't take a game off at this point in the year."
One of the biggest differences in this year's first round of the NCAA tournament will be the venue. Many comments were made last year regarding the lack-luster atmosphere of the Toledo location, but this year's Minnesota venue should prove quite different.
"Playing at the Compton, everyone is behind our back, but playing in Minnesota is a different animal," Costello says. "Honestly, I think it could play in our favor. All season, we've been going on the road playing BC in their building, playing Vermont on their home rink--it will emphasize what we have to do: keep the game simple, minimize mistakes, play hard and play gritty.
"It's exciting and exhilarating when the fans are getting into it and they're cheering, yelling and booing even. All that can absolutely be a motivation to work harder out there."
Last year Costello was a junior and a prominent role player on the team. This year he wears the "C" on his chest, but he says that hasn't altered his play style.
"I don't think it changes that much in my game," he explains. "I mean, when there's a bad call or a chippy play, it's on me and the other captains to keep all our guys in line. There can definitely be a snowball effect with those types of things, and it can all go downhill really quickly. "But I'm approaching this game just like any other game this year. And that's what we've been trying to preach to the younger guys on the team."
At this point in his career, any game can be Costello's final contest in a Notre Dame uniform. With 11 seniors on the team, it might be an overwhelming sentiment.
"The reality is really setting in now. We had our last game at the Compton a couple weeks ago and that was a dramatic time," he says.
"You get to think you'll be playing here together forever. You spend four years here with the same guys literally hanging out with them all the time--practice, workouts, class, studying--and it feels like it'll never come to an end. "It's a bittersweet thing. It would be great to just keep playing with your buddies, yet it's got to come to an end. But there would be no better way to end it than to raise a banner with some of your best friends."
"Personally, whatever happens, I just want us to play our best hockey. Last week against UMass-Lowell, and even last year against St. Cloud State, we really beat ourselves out there. Being a senior and the captain, I want to make sure that I'm giving it my all and the team is giving it their all as well. For me and the rest of the seniors, there's no going back, there's no next year. We're going to lay it all on the table and see what we've got."
Come Saturday, it will be Jeff Costello's, and the Fighting Irish's chance to show the country exactly what they've got.