Oct. 11, 2006
Notre Dame, Ind. -
When one looks at the Notre Dame hockey team's 2005-06 record, they may not think much of the final 13-19-4 overall mark and the CCHA finish of 11-13-4.
Closer inspection, though, shows the Irish made giant strides in Jeff Jackson's first season guiding the Notre Dame hockey fortunes.
The veteran coach, who has had success everywhere he's been, took a team that finished last in the CCHA in 2004-05, with a 3-20-5 record, and saw the Irish turn in a 15-point improvement in the standings. The 11-13-4 conference record was good for an eighth-place finish and home ice in the league's new playoff format. Only Miami's 16-point improvement was better than what Notre Dame accomplished.
On Dec. 2, 2005, the Irish record stood at 3-9-1 after a tough, one-goal loss on the road at Western Michigan. From there, Notre Dame would go 10-10-3 over the final 23 games. Only the first-round playoff loss to Alaska could put a damper on the turnaround achieved by the Irish.
The Irish made their turnaround with strong goaltending, a solid defensive style of play and an excellent power play.
For the year, Jackson's icers surrendered just 98 goals for a 2.70 goals-against average, the third-lowest mark in the history of the Irish hockey program.
Goaltender David Brown (Sr., Stoney Creek, Ont.) paced the Irish in goal, appearing over one stretch in 23 consecutive games on the way to a 9-15-4 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. Both totals were the third-best single-season marks respectively. Brown also had two shutouts to add to his career total of six.
Jordan Pearce (So., Anchorage, Alaska) was effective in nine appearances, going 4-4-0 with a 3.25 goals-against average and a .882 save percentage.
The defense got stronger as the season went on giving up just 11 goals in a 4-0-1 in the home-ice stretch drive in February.
Offensively, the Irish struggled to score, lighting the lamp just 89 times on the year with 42.6% of their goals (38) coming on the power play. The 89 goals was a 29-goal improvement from the previous season.
The Notre Dame power play finished the year scoring at a 16.6% rate (38 of 229) and led the CCHA in that category with a 19.5% success rate (33 for 169).
Only three players reached double figures in the goals-scored column on the Irish stat sheet with Josh Sciba (17), Tim Wallace (11) and Mike Walsh (10) accounting for 38 lamplighters. Wallace and Walsh both graduated following the `05-'06 season.
Jackson and his coaching staff look forward to getting this season off to a fast start.
"We made great strides last season, but we still have a way to go," says Jackson. "I thought that we really started to play with confidence in the second half of the season and its important that we don't fall back to the comfort levels of the past. This team has some talent and leadership. It's important that we start the season the way we finished last year."
Just like the second half of last season, the key to any Notre Dame on-ice success will start in goal.
Brown will be the go-to-guy again but its safe to say that both Pearce and incoming freshman Tom O'Brien (Mokena, Ill.) will be pushing the senior every day in practice.
The Stoney Creek, Ont., native goes into his final year looking to leave his mark on the Notre Dame record book.
Brown starts the season with the best career goals-against average (2.77) in the program's history and his .909 save percentage ranks second all-time.
Blessed with outstanding tools, Brown became more focused and mentally tougher in the second half of the season.
"David was a major key to our second-half resurgence and if he can start where he finished last year, it will be a huge boost to the team. When he is playing well, the defense and the penalty killing plays with confidence," comments Jackson.
Pearce and O'Brien give the Irish a deep and talented stable of goaltenders. Even though Pearce didn't play much in the second half (Brown played 23 consecutive games from the beginning of December to the middle of February), he came up with two of the team's biggest efforts on the year.
Pearce replaced Brown in a January game at Northern Michigan, trailing 3-1. The Anchorage, Alaska native went on to slam the door on the Wildcats, stopping all 14 shots he faced as Notre Dame rallied for a 4-3 win. In game two of the CCHA playoffs, Brown injured his ankle in a collision and played just the first 10 minutes. Pearce came on to make 15 saves in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss.
O'Brien played last season in the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL) for the Bridgewater Bandits and was 13-8-2 with a 2.93 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
"We will have a more competitive situation in goal this year. Jordan (Pearce) will have another year under his belt. He didn't get to play much in the second half but when he did, he stepped up in some very big games and played well," says Jackson.
"Tom O'Brien makes it even more competitive. He has the ability to play at this level and will push David and Jordan this season.
When the goaltenders are playing well, the defense is usually having a strong game. The Irish have an experienced and veteran corps of defenders that along with the goaltending will be the backbone of the team.
Jackson will be able to call on a trio of senior defenders. That group consists of Wes O'Neill (Essex, Ont.), Noah Babin (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.) and Tom Sawatske (Duluth, Minn).
O'Neill saw all aspects of his game come together last season as he became one of the top defensemen in the nation. Offensively, the 6-4, 231-pounder finished fourth in scoring with six goals and 19 assists for 25 points. Four of those goals and nine assists came on the power play. This season, he adds a leadership role to his resume as he will serve as one of the team's alternate captains.
"We're counting on Wes to have a break out year. He really showed what he could do in the second half of last season when he was as good as anyone in the league. He should be an all-CCHA and All-American candidate this year," says Jackson.
Babin was second to O'Neill in scoring among Irish defensemen with three goals and 12 assists for 15 points. A mobile defender who supplies excellent offensive skills, Babin will look to have a strong campaign in his final year.
Sawatske rounds out the senior group with a sound defensive style of play. Seeing action with the Irish in his first season after starting his collegiate career at Wisconsin, Sawatske proved to be a steadying force on the Irish blue line, playing in 32 games with two goals and two assists for four points. He joins O'Neill as one of the team's alternate captians in his second season at Notre Dame.
"I thought that all three seniors made giant strides last season. Throw in Brock Sheahan, who was our most consistent defenseman last season, and I think we have a top four group of defensemen that is as good as any group in the CCHA. Team them with David (Brown) in goal and we have a pretty solid goaltender and defense," states Jackson.
Brock Sheahan (Jr., Lethbridge, Alb.) has been a regular on defense in each of his first two seasons, playing in 72 games with 12 assists. A steady, stay-at-home defender, Sheahan plays a smart, defensive game and avoids mistakes in his own end of the ice. A fierce competitor, Sheahan does not shy away from the physical play in front of the net or in the corners.
Two more juniors and two freshmen round out Notre Dame's group of eight defensemen.
Juniors Dan VeNard (Vernon Hills, Ill.) and Brian D'Arcy (Western Springs, Ill.) are joined by freshmen Brett Blatchford (Temperance, Mich.) and Kyle Lawson (New Hudson, Mich.).
VeNard has battled injuries throughout his time at Notre Dame, but has seen action in 54 games with two goals and two assists to his credit. A strong skater, VeNard plays smart and moves the puck well in transition.
D'Arcy is one of the team's hardest workers with a team-first attitude. He's only played in 15 games in his career, but pushes his teammates.
Blatchford and Lawson bring offensive skills to the Irish roster.
Blatchford played three seasons of junior hockey for the Texas Tornado of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) where he helped that team to three NAHL titles. Last season, he had three goals and 46 assists for 49 points in 54 games. A first team all-NAHL selection he finished his career as Texas' all-time assist leader with 90.
Lawson, a 2005 draft choice of the Carolina Hurricanes, played last season with the USHL's Tri-City Storm where he had nine goals and 13 assists in 49 games. Prior to playing in the USHL, Lawson was a two-year member of USA Hockey's National Team Developmental Program.
"We are really adding some talented depth on defense with Brett (Blatchford) and Kyle (Lawson). Brett is a bit of a sleeper, but after seeing him in the national tournament, he showed some strong offensive skills. Kyle is one of the top freshmen defensemen in the country. Both have good vision and make good decisions with the puck," says Jackson.
While the Irish are strong on the defensive side of the puck, its the offensive attack that has held the Irish back.
Notre Dame scored just 2.47 goals-per-game in `05-'06, the fourth-lowest total in the league.
"Scoring was definitely the sore spot last season. Offensively, we have to, as a team, show a willingness and the courage to take the puck to the net, to crash the crease," says Jackson.
Notre Dame's offensive leader last season was sophomore right wing Erik Condra (Livonia, Mich.). All he did as a freshman was score six times and add 28 assists for 34 points. A member of the CCHA all-rookie team, Condra led all CCHA freshmen in scoring and was seventh in the nation among rookie scorers. Condra capped his first season at Notre Dame by being selected in the seventh round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by the Ottawa Senators.
Joining Condra at the top of the scoring list is senior Josh Sciba (Westland, Mich.) who led Notre Dame with 17 goals and added 13 assists for 30 points, all career highs. Sciba did a majority of his damage on the power play where he had 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 of his points.
Sciba, who played center last season, could move to left wing this year but will still man the right point on the Irish power play.
A third forward who had a real break out season was junior Mark Van Guilder. A tough, rugged forward, the Roseville, Minn., native showed a knack for scoring important goals all season long.
Van Guilder had eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points, all career highs. Playing in all situations, he had six power-play goals and a short-handed tally on his record.
"It will be important for Erik (Condra), Josh (Sciba) and Mark (Van Guilder) to start the season the way they finished last year," says Jackson. "They really carried the offense last year and worked well on our top power-play unit with Wes O'Neill and Mike Walsh. Moving Josh to the point was a key decision. It really let us take advantage of his shot and his ability to handle the puck. The key this year will be to find that second power-play group to take some of the heat off the top unit."
After Van Guilder's 26-point season, the top returning scorer at forward is senior right wing T.J. Jindra (Faribault, Minn). The team's captain for the second season, Jindra had two goals and six assists for eight points.
An outstanding defensive forward, Jindra will be a key to improving Notre Dame's penalty-killing unit along with the likes of Jason Paige (Sr., Saginaw, Mich.) and Michael Bartlett (Sr., Morton Grove, Ill.).
A premier shot blocker, Jindra will do whatever it takes to help his team win.
Joining him in that category is fellow senior and center Jason Paige. One of the CCHA's top face-off men, Paige had four goals and an assist last season while playing in every game. He has scored as many as 10 goals in his career and will look to get back near those totals this season. Paige is one of the team's true leaders as he will serve as an alternate captain for the third consecutive season.
Several returnees will look to pick up some of the offensive slack lost due to the graduation of Wallace, Mike Walsh and Matt Amado. Those three accounted for 29 goals and 24 assists in 36 games.
"We will be looking for the sophomores and juniors to have breakout seasons the way Sciba and Van Guilder did last year," states Jackson.
"There are several players on this team that have had strong offensive seasons at other levels and will be looking to do the same thing here, players like Christian Hanson, Evan Rankin and Michael Bartlett come to mind."
Christian Hanson (Venetia, Pa.), a sophomore, returns at center. At 6-4, 214-pounds he is one of the biggest players on the team and can use his size and hockey skills to add to the Irish offense.
A key face-off man for Notre Dame, Hanson had just one goal and two assists last season, but was the leading scorer at Tri-City two years ago. He's got great size and good hands.
Evan Rankin (Jr., Portage, Mich.) is in his third season with the Irish and has showed flashes of his offensive skill throughout his first two seasons. He had three goals and two assists in 29 games as a sophomore but was the top freshman scorer in `04-'05 with five goals and five assists for 10 points.
Michael Bartlett (Sr., Morton Grove, Ill.) checked in with two goals and five assists last season and usually sees action at left wing. A strong skater, he's been one of the team's top defensive forwards and has excelled on the penalty-killing unit.
Also looking for an opportunity to see more playing time on the left side are a pair of sophomore left wings, Garrett Regan (Hastings, Minn.) and Justin White (Traverse City, Mich.).
Regan played in 30 games last season, picking up three goals and four assists for seven points. He's got outstanding speed and the ability to stretch defenses.
White saw limited duty a year ago, playing in nine games. A hard-working forward, White continues to improve all aspects of his game and will battle for more ice time this season.
Jackson will also look to five freshmen forwards to find their niche in the Irish offense. Three of the newcomers will look to break in on the right side. That group consists of Stewart Carlin (Jeannette, Pa.), Christiaan Minella (Aurora, Colo.) and Ryan Thang (Edina, Minn).
Carlin gives the Irish coaching staff a versatile player. A defenseman by trade, he will see duty at forward this season due to having eight other defensemen on the roster. He comes to Notre Dame after playing last year for the USHL's Chicago Steel. A strong skater who makes good decisions with the puck, Carlin registered seven goals and 17 assists to lead all Steel defensemen in scoring and ranked 10th among USHL defenders.
Minella joins the Irish after three seasons with the Sioux City Musketeers. A big, rugged forward (6-1, 217), Minella had his best season a year ago with 24 goals and 14 assists for 38 points, including eight power-play goals. Strong in the corners and in front of the net, he brings a gritty style to the Irish frontline and could become a fixture in front of the net on the power play.
Thang is another power forward who has no objections in going hard to the net to make life miserable for opposing goaltenders and defensemen. At 6-0, 188, Thang is an excellent two-way forward.
In `05-'06, he played the first part of the season with Sioux City and then was traded to Omaha. Between the two outposts, Thang had 23 goals and 29 assists for 52 points in 57 games. Included in those goal totals were four power plays, three short-handed markers and two game winners. One number that stands out on Thang's stat line is the fact that he led the USHL with a +34 +/- rating.
The two remaining freshmen are highly skilled playmakers. Kevin Deeth (Gig Harbor, Wash.) and Dan Kissel (Crestwood, Ill.) both had strong seasons in their final USHL campaigns.
Deeth played for the Green Bay Gamblers where he was second in scoring with 20 goals and 34 assists with six power-play goals, two shorties and two game winners. At 5-7, 161 pounds he uses his speed and darting style to open the ice for his linemates and make plays. He will see action at either left wing or center, depending on how other positions are filled.
Kissel was a teammate of Carlin with the Chicago Steel. He scored 17 goals and added 27 assists to finish third in scoring with 44 points. At 5-9, 166 pounds, Kissel plays an aggressive style and has a nice scoring touch around the net.
"Our freshmen are going to have a chance to contribute this season. Thang and Minella play that tough, gritty style that we need to play. They have that willingness to go to the net and win the battles in front. Deeth is an intelligent and skilled player who makes plays. Kissel plays with an edge to his game and should be one of our centers and Carlin gives us some versatility. He'll see time for us this year at forward and back on defense if the need arises. We will be looking for a couple of these guys to fill the openings left by the graduations of Tim Wallace, Mike Walsh and Matt Amado."
One area that Jackson expects to concentrate on this preseason is the team's penalty killing that struggled early last year but got better as the season went on. For the year, the Irish surrendered 43 power-play goals in 227 chances for an 81.1% success rate. Jackson knows that improvement here is a key.
"We have to improve our penalty killing. The key to a successful PK is your goaltending and core of defensemen. When David (Brown) started playing with confidence, we got much better. During the first half of the year we were devasted on the PK, but got it above 80% for the year. In the second half we were around 85%," explains Jackson.
"We have a solid group up front with guys like Jindra, Paige, Van Guilder, Condra, Regan and Bartlett. I would like to see us combine for 105% between the two special teams. To reach that goal is a good objective."
Notre Dame plays an interesting schedule in `06-'07 as they will spend most of October on the road.
In the CCHA, the Irish are teamed with Bowling Green, Alaska and Nebraska-Omaha in the same cluster and will face each team twice, home-and-away.
Notre Dame has just two home-and-home series this year versus Michigan and Michigan State. The Irish will face Miami, Northern Michigan and Ferris State in two-game home series and travel to Lake Superior, Ohio State and Western Michigan for two games each.
The non-league schedule includes a home-and-home season-opening series with Minnesota State, a road trip to Boston College and Providence and then a trip to Florida to host the Lightning College Hockey Classic in Tampa, Fla., at the end of October. Air Force, Alabama-Huntsville and Army will provide the opposition in that tournament. The Irish close the non-league schedule in January with a home-and-home series against Robert Morris.
"The schedule will be a challenge for us. It isn't easy by any means," says Jackson. "We will hit some bumps in the road early with all the road games in October. That's not necessarily a bad thing. We'll be road warriors and that can help a team bond and can be a good experience."
He continues, "The CCHA will be tough and challenging as it always is. Things will be tight again and it wouldn't surprise me if the team finishing eighth, like last year, is just three or four points out of fourth place. It's very competitive."
Jackson will look for his team to take another step forward in `06-'07.
"We still need to learn how to win, learn to have confidence in each other. Confidence breeds more confidence. We started to develop that last season and its important not to fall back. This team has to outwork, out compete and out smart our opponents. If we can do that, I believe that a reachable goal is finishing among the top four in the CCHA," says Jackson.