November 16, 2012

Hockey East Journal: Irish getting a feel for what's to come

By Andrew Merritt

Goalie Mike Johnson and Notre Dame advanced to the Frozen Four in 2011. (Getty Images)

CHESTNUT HILL – The journey began Thursday for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. By the time they’d returned home, they had crossed over three states, played a game in a fourth, and returned back over those three states in time for Monday classes.

The Irish had better get used to it, because a year from now, they’ll be making that kind of trip an awful lot.

Notre Dame joins Hockey East in the fall of 2013, becoming the conference’s 11th member and its first new member since Vermont joined the league in 2005. When that happens, the Irish will bring an influx of talent and notoriety to a league already well-stocked with both. The move was the end result of some 18 months of shuffling among college hockey teams, which also resulted in the planned dissolution of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association after this season. That league will become defunct as its 11 teams depart for other leagues – five to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, two to the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference, three to the new Big Ten hockey league, and finally the Irish to Hockey East.

It’ll be a new world for everyone, but it won’t be wholly unfamiliar for the Irish. They’ve routinely scheduled a few games against Hockey East teams over the last several years, and have played two this season, beating Maine on Oct. 12 and falling to Boston College on Nov. 9. They’ve also occasionally clashed with some of their future rivals in the NCAA Tournament, including victories over New Hampshire and Merrimack in 2011.

It’s given the Irish a sense of what’s to come next year when they shift away from the more structured style of play they see in the CCHA, to the free-flowing style most Hockey East teams play.

“One of the things I look forward to in Hockey East is, we’re trying to build a team based on skill and speed,” coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s still a work in progress in some areas, but I like the style of play in Hockey East – for the majority of teams. It’s not just BC; BU plays an up-tempo game, UNH plays an up-tempo game, Maine, when they’re playing at a high level, is an up-tempo team. There’s a lot of teams in that category.”

Junior captain and playmaker T.J. Tynan saw that high-paced game up close last Friday against BC.

“They were very skilled, they’re a good team. I think we made some mistakes to allow them to use their speed and score some goals there,” he said of the top-ranked Eagles.

“I feel like [Hockey East teams] play more of a faster, flow game,” Tynan said. “CCHA teams use more systems, they’re a little grittier. Obviously Hockey East teams are very good year after year, and they have a lot of skill. It’ll be fun next year to play all those teams.”

It’ll be fun, but it’ll also require some discipline for the Irish, who will be the farthest outpost in the league by a wide margin. The longest trips in the league right now – those involving Maine – can clock in at more than five hours, but that’s by bus. The Irish will fly to the East Coast to meet their Hockey East opponents, and ostensibly vice versa, starting next year. That means at least five trips east for Notre Dame, and five Hockey East teams venturing well out of their New England nests to South Bend, Ind.

For the BC trip, the Irish got on a plane at about 6 p.m. Thursday night and landed in Boston at about 9, according to associate media relations director Tim Connor. They might have flown earlier, but Notre Dame has a school rule prohibiting students from missing more than two meetings of any class each semester, so the players had to make their Thursday classes before taking off for the game.

It’s not the most grueling trip Notre Dame will make this year – playing in the CCHA does, after all, entail bi-annual trips to Alaska, and games at Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan mean 10-hour bus rides. So the Irish are pretty well-prepared for the intensity of flying to Hockey East locations at least five times each season. The league will adopt a schedule in 2013 that will match each team against its league foes for two games each year instead of three, and there won’t be any home-and-home weekends for the Irish, so they’ll have five home series against league teams, and five on the road, plus a potential extra trip east depending on playoff positioning.

“Just rest, hydrate as much as you can,” Tynan said when asked how Notre Dame players deal with the amount of travel they do on a regular basis. “You can’t really think about the travel, it’s going to happen, so you just have to deal with it and get ready for the game as best you can.”

The road warriors will be rewarded with strong receptions in Hockey East arenas, especially at BC, whose football rivalry with Notre Dame makes for some added intensity on the ice. That was evident at Conte Forum, where a sellout crowd cheered the Eagles on to their seventh straight win (they made it eight two days later against Boston University). The Irish should get used to the idea of being challenged every night in Hockey East, where the only predictable thing on a game-to-game basis is unpredictability.

“There’s a lot of good programs, and for the most part they play a great style of play, which is what we want to be part of,” Jackson said. “We’re looking forward to that.”

Player of the Week

Johnny Gaudreau, so., BC

Johnny was good once again for the Eagles, scoring three goals over the weekend including the game-winners in victories over Notre Dame and BU. Friday’s two-goal effort against the Irish was his first multi-goal game of the year, albeit probably not his last.

Game of the Week

UNH at Boston University, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Both teams are ranked coming into this matinee, which was moved up to 1 p.m. to avoid conflicting with the Patriots-Colts game. The No. 6 Wildcats come to BU on a two-game win streak since their surprising loss to UMass on Nov. 2, while the No. 11 Terriers are coming off a hard-fought loss to rival BC last weekend. It’s also a matchup of the league’s No. 2 and No. 3 offenses, with UNH’s 3.25 goals scored per game just outpacing BU’s 3.00 GPG.

Power Rankings

1. Boston College (8-1-0, 8-1-0 HEA) – Remember that brief time early this season when we had the Eagles ranked anywhere but No. 1? Hope you took a picture, because it probably won’t happen again anytime soon. Of note: coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) is four wins away from becoming the winningest coach in college hockey history. If the Eagles continue their win streak, York will be going for the record on Saturday, Dec. 1, at home, against – of course – Boston University.

2. New Hampshire (6-1-1, 4-1-1 HEA) – The Wildcats leapfrogged BU and Merrimack this week after sophomore goalie Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) posted his second straight shutout, a 27-save effort against Vermont that gives UNH its best start since 2003-04. Led by DeSmith, the Wildcats have the league’s best defense, allowing just 1.38 goals per game.

3. Boston University (5-3-0, 4-2-0 HEA) – The Terriers split their games against Merrimack and BC last weekend, with freshman Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.) picking up his first collegiate goal in the 4-2 loss to the Eagles.

4. Merrimack (4-5-1, 3-2-1 HEA) – Just as the Warriors seemed to be gathering steam, they took a pair of losses – first to BU, then to UConn, which is currently in 10th place in Atlantic Hockey.

5. Northeastern (4-4-1, 2-4-1 HEA) – A pair of wins against Alabama-Huntsville last weekend broke the Huskies out of their five-game winless streak, and included Chris Rawlings’ school-record-setting 10th career shutout on Saturday.

6. Providence (4-4-1, 3-3-0 HEA) – The Friars went 3-2-1 in October, their best record in that month since 2009, but November has not been so kind. They’ve gone 1-2-0 this month, and are on a two-game losing streak heading into Friday’s game against Northeastern.

7. UMass-Lowell (2-4-1, 1-3-1 HEA) – The River Hawks picked up their first Hockey East win Friday, beating lowly Maine 2-1 in the program’s first victory with fewer than three goals scored since 2009, but they dropped one to the Black Bears the next night.

8. UMass (3-4-0, 2-4-0 HEA) – Some good news came out of the Minutemen’s weekend split: They seem to have a No. 1 goaltender. Sophomore Kevin Boyle pitched a 17-save shutout to lead UMass past Providence, marking the program’s first clean sheet since Jan. 13.

9. Vermont (1-3-2, 1-3-2 HEA) – The Catamounts couldn’t do much in a 4-0 loss to UNH Saturday, and the hill only gets steeper from here. They’ll play five games over eight days starting with Friday’s home contest against BU, and including three games against Hockey East foes.

10. Maine (2-9-0, 1-5-0 HEA) – Some light finally found the Black Bears last weekend as hometown boy Kyle Williams, a freshman from Bowdoinham, scored the game-winner against UMass-Lowell in his first appearance since Oct. 27, leading Maine to its first Hockey East win and its first win of any stripe since Oct. 13.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.