Last year, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish finished 15 points ahead of where they were at the end of the 2004-05 season. Of course, that wasn’t hard to do.
The 2004-05 season was the five-win year for Notre Dame — not five CCHA wins, mind you, but five wins total — and the last year for head coach Dave Poulin.
From that perspective, 13 wins overall looked pretty darned good last season. Partly because of that performance, partly because of his own lengthy experience, head coach Jeff Jackson is understandably optimistic entering this new year.
“It is a very exciting time for me going into the second year, not knowing what to expect last year,” said Jackson. “We made tremendous gains over the season last year and I think we were a much better team in the second half mostly because of our defense.”
Defense. Of course. It’s a broken record (so to speak) in the CCHA this year, this pride in a defensive game. Many coaches point to their defense as their team’s strength, and a good defense is a good thing to have in a good league like the good CCHA.
But for Jackson, we can issue a pass. After a nine-year absence from college hockey, Jackson returned to take over a dispirited team at a university with a very high-profile athletic program. He had no idea what he was inheriting, and his mere presence alone seemed to be the difference in his first year as head coach.
So having a strong defense is a very good thing, if you had little else before you worked your way toward that asset.
This is a talented hockey club. I remember watching the Irish play last year in Columbus, after the dismal 2004-05 season, and checking the team’s roster repeatedly during the games as though I’d never, ever seen them play before.
“Oh,” I thought over and over again. “Of course. Wes O’Neill. I know him. Hey! Josh Sciba! Tim Wallace! Jason Paige!”
Like déjà vu, a very disconcerting but pleasant experience.
“Up front, we’re excited about the prospects of Josh Sciba, a senior, coming back and having another tremendous season,” said Jackson. “He was a very pleasant surprise for me, not having known him.”
Jackson is also high on sophomore Erik Condra, the team’s leading point scorer, as well as junior Mark Van Guilder, whom Jackson calls “the unheralded player of the group … who was a walk-on a few years ago, [and] really came into his own last season. He has tremendous character and wants to be a player. We think that he can be a great player for us in his last two years.”
The Irish are also bolstering their offense with a pair of talented rookies that Jackson likes. “We have a young man, Kevin Deeth … tenacious, a smaller player who has a lot of grit and determination. He also has a high skill level. Ryan Thang, another freshman, who I think will have an impact as a power forward for us this season.”
Thang. Now there’s a great new hockey name.
Oh, I think the Fighting Irish have this one covered.
“We’ll have more balance this year,” said Jackson. “I think we’ll have more competition for playing time. Our depth will be a little improved.”
The Irish return the competent David Brown in net, and Jackson likes the way his defense skates.
But there is one thing that remains a reality at Notre Dame, something that former head coach Dave Poulin could never overcome, and through I think no fault of his own.
“Although we have a difficult schedule to start the season,” said Jackson, “on the road quite a bit while the football team continues their first half, hopefully as we approach the second half we’ll be in much better position than we were a year ago at this time.”
Back up. He said “football.” The skating Irish are always competing with their gridiron brethren, as evidenced by the rink in which they play. Like another big football school, Ohio State, the Irish have to compete with the football team for fans as well, something that the Spartans and Wolverines seem to avoid.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Notre Dame hockey program is going places with Jeff Jackson at the helm, and a healthy, strong Irish hockey program can only be good for college hockey overall, heightening the profile of the sport.
It’s difficult to compete with that football mentality in a place like South Bend, but maybe with a bit more success than his predecessor had, Jeff Jackson can help bring about a real miracle, a new rink for his team.
Eventually. I think Irish fans would settle in the immediate future for a few more wins.