Oct. 12, 2014 Notre Dame, Ind. - There are growing pains when a team is packed with first-year players.
In collegiate hockey, those growing pains leave bruises.
On Sunday, the University of Notre Dame hockey team suffered a 3-0 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the third-place game of Notre Dame's Ice Breaker Tournament. The loss left the Irish with a 0-2 mark and an understanding that a team with 10 freshmen on the roster will need time to develop into the contender Irish head coach Jeff Jackson knows his team can be when the puck drops for the NCAA Championships in March.
Notre Dame will get back on the ice Friday and Saturday at the Compton Family Ice Arena, when the Irish host Lake Superior State.
"Anytime you lose two games at home, it's not good," Jackson said. "I'm going to be patient. I have to be. I have no alternative. We've got some good younger players, but they're young. We have more true freshmen than we've ever had since I've been here, and it shows up in certain areas of our game. It's the veterans who have to lead the way. Some of the mistakes that they're making ... I think they're trying too hard. They have to keep the game simple and play the way we're capable of."
One area where Jackson knows the Irish have to grow up is in front of the net, a place that will test even the strongest of hearts. Shoves, slashes and punches fly in the area in front of the net. It's a place where finesse rarely ventures, but a place where success can be defined.
Jackson also wants to see his Irish make life hard for opponents in the areas that he calls the hard ice.
"I think we can be grittier," Jackson said. "There's a difference between physicality and grit, getting into those tough areas on the ice, whether it's on the walls, on the breakout, in front of the nets ... we have to get to the hard ice, and we have to have success in those areas. That's something we haven't shown yet, and that's something as coaches that we're going to have to keep emphasizing. We have to find a way to be a little grittier in front of each net and on the wall. Some of that is youth, as long as the veterans are taking care of it, too."
Jackson understands grit and chemistry and developing an instinct for dishing off the perfect pass to a teammate will take time.
"There are so many young guys, so it's kind of like a new team," Jackson said of his Irish. "The older guys are just trying to feel their way through, after having been following for three years. They have to find their game and just recognize what we are right now. We're a young team that has a lot of potential, and I won't change my mind on that.
"The one thing I worry about with young guys, we're throwing a lot at them. We're coaching the way we normally coach, and when you have a veteran team, they understand the lingo, they understand the tactical end of the game. These young guys, it may hypnotize them. It may slow them down. I talk to them about it, 'Hey, listen. We throw stuff at you, but you just have to go out and play.'"
Irish senior defenseman Robbie Russo said the Irish know they haven't developed that precision on the ice where players make instinctive plays, rather than think things through.
"It's pretty obviously the chemistry is a little off," Russo said. "Things aren't really clicking right now. It's costing us a little bit. I think it will take a little more time than it has in the past. I think it's more line chemistry than guys being young. I think we just have to stick to the game plan. Eventually, we'll click."
Steven Fogarty, a junior center, understands the challenge for the Irish leadership in terms of helping the freshmen grow up.
"We knew it was going to take time, having so many young guys," Fogarty said. "It will come with time. We saw flashes of it out there. It's a matter of being consistent. I think when we were down, we were trying to force plays. It's a chemistry aspect. We know we have what it takes on each unit to score goals and make plays. We have to make the simple play, the play that's there. Once we do that, we'll have some success."
Tentative play will quickly fade away, according to Fogarty.
"I think just being new to college hockey, it's normal to kind of sit back and not be afraid to make a play, but not trust your instincts," Fogarty said. "It's just a matter of guys realizing they're Division I college hockey players, that they're here for a reason. They have the ability to play at this level. It will take time, but once they understand that, they'll be fine."
Jackson praised the play of his goaltenders, Chad Katunar and Cal Peterson. Three of the six goals allowed by the Irish in the two games were off power plays. Turnovers and penalties also haunted the Irish.
"The turnovers turn us, and the penalties hurt us," Jackson said. "At least two or three of the penalties were the direct results of turnovers. We shoot ourselves in the foot. We start to get momentum, and we give up a goal, or we start getting momentum, and we take a penalty. We took one offensive zone penalty. We took two power-play penalties. You're not going to win doing that. You have to eliminate the bad penalties. That's the first priority."
Building a team with many new faces and many players picking up new roles is a challenge the Irish must embrace this season. There are risks that players can become frustrated, try to do too much. A good attitude and understanding of the challenge is critical.
"It's not about where we are in October," Jackson said of the 0-2 start. "It's about where we are in January and February. There's a lot of time for us to learn, and we just have to make sure that we don't fall too far off, because this program is about success and winning. I know our older guys own and understand that, but they have to recognize that we have two guys who have never played college goal, they have to recognize that we have three or four defensemen on the back who haven't played, we have five guys up front who have never played. They have to recognize that process, and embrace it.
"We need to become the Kansas City Royals. They lingered around all season long ... it's about where you are at the end."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent