NCAA Hockey 101: What's wrong with Notre Dame?

Ryan Lambert
October 23, 2009
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Hockey 101 is a weekly feature on U.S. Division I college hockey. Stick around and you just might learn a thing or two.

Notre Dame has a problem.

While the Fighting Irish are 3-2-0 this year and ranked No. 9 in the country, they've lost to a pair of what you'd call weak teams, and looked pretty bad doing it.

They might have taken the season-opening loss to Alabama-Huntsville as one of those things where an inspired opponent snuck by a giant on heart and will alone. But the loss to Providence, one of the worst teams in the country last year, six days later? That's just inexcusable.

(Coming Up: The rising star of Stephane Da Costa; an awful start for UNH; and your national scoring leaders so far.)

Sure, they've now shut out two opponents in a row and climbed back above .500, but Tuesday's win over No. 3 Boston University might have been the worst-played game between Top-10 opponents this decade.

Yes, the Irish won 3-0, but the way they did it was just about as uninspiring and hollow as a win can get. It wasn't so much that they beat BU as it was that one team, mathematically, had to eventually capitalize on the other's inability to do anything whatsoever with the puck. It just happened to be Notre Dame that did it.

Put it this way: Down two goals midway through the third, BU got two breakaway chances and neither resulted in a shot on goal. On the first, the Terrier forward shot the puck wide, and on the second, a different forward skated it right past the red line without even attempting a shot (and Notre Dame promptly took it the other way and scored off BU goalie Kieran Millan's glove).

The game was a hodgepodge of mishandled pucks, amateurish breakouts and a seeming desire to take as many obstruction penalties as humanly possible, just a year removed from the teams spending all season trading the No. 1 ranking in every poll. This, I was told, is how most of Notre Dame's first four games went.

"This is the worst game I've seen in a year," noted one well-traveled press box wag a little after the midway point of the game.

"It's not so much defensive hockey as it is [bad] offensive hockey," replied another.

Both coaches, though, seemed to want to massage some kind of positive from the mess they watched their teams scrape all over the ice.

"Our team's been a little out of sync offensively," said Irish coach Jeff Jackson, widely regarded as one of -- if not the -- premier coach in the college game, "and that's what I thought I saw with (BU). I thought both teams were good defensively, but managing anything offensively was a challenge out there for both teams. Maybe that's because both teams were good teams defensively."

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To be fair, that's not technically untrue. BU did only concede 16 shots, and Notre Dame didn't allow a goal on 31. But most of the shots, especially through two periods, were from the perimeter and weak, and the Terrier attack seemed almost eager to wait for a shooting lane to evaporate before attempting toward goal. The Irish, meanwhile rarely held offensive-zone possession. The power plays, which finished Nos. 1 and 2 in the country last season, were a combined 1 for 14. BU coach Jack Parker described his team's man-up play as "inept" and noted that it was "like we never practiced" 5-on-3.

The Irish did, however, find some reason for hope. Starting netminder Brad Phillips, returning this season after missing 18 months with an ACL injury and off to an 0-2 start, held up well when BU did compose itself offensively and pour on the pressure for a few minutes in the third. And last year's productive line of Calle Ridderwall, Kevin Deeth and Billy Maday was reunited for the first time this season and held up its end of the bargain with a pair of goals.

"Going into tonight and playing a team like BU, we had to have some kind of chemistry," said Jackson. "I know that line has chemistry. Will they stay together forever? I couldn't tell you that, but I felt like we need to establish some form of chemistry on our lines."

Whether the Irish are out of the woods yet will depend a whole lot on how they do against No. 14 (and falling) Boston College tonight. The Eagles looked markedly poor on Sunday against then-No. 11 Vermont and earning a positive result could mean the Irish are back on the right track.

Losing to BC, though? That might mean a long season in South Bend.

Homework: Da Costa isn't your ordinary Warrior

Merrimack freshmen don't usually get much promotion, but the name Stephane Da Costa is one most college hockey fans will be hearing a lot over the next few years.

Da Costa, a native of Paris, France, came to the U.S. to get a college education, but missed the first two games of the season due to an eligibility issue that the NCAA would have hurriedly cleared up had he been a rookie at, say, Minnesota or UNH.

"We've been working on (getting me eligible) for like a year and a half, so it feels great," Da Costa said after his debut. "I was just happy."

So when I saw on Twitter that he had been cleared to play the night before Merrimack's home opener with Holy Cross, I hurriedly cleared my schedule to take in a game. Admittedly, I bought into the hype that was being peddled by a former colleague of mine who covers the Warriors and assured me this kid would instantly be one of the best players on the team.

"I think we were wrong on him," said Coach Mark Dennehy. "I think he's better than we thought he was. I don't know about you guys, but I saw him do some things that I haven't seen in a college hockey game in a long time."

While he may not have gotten on the scoresheet in his first game, everyone in the building could tell the kid was special; there was a palpable buzz when the puck was on his stick. In his first college game, he was being double-shifted by the end of the first period, played all three forward positions on two different lines, ran the power play from the left halfboards, killed penalties, bought space for himself and his teammates with precocious little plays, exhibited a lethal shot and probably would have had two or three assists if his teammates had been at all prepared for him to get them the puck as well as he did. He was, in a word, electrifying.

He also devoured minutes. While college teams don't keep those stats officially, press box estimations had him somewhere between 26 and 28.

"I wasn't expecting it," he said. "As a freshman it's weird to have that much (ice time), but I got it and played. I'm happy coach trusts me and I'm going to prove that I can do it."

The next night, he did. In the first 13:36, he had a natural hat trick. By the end of the game, he had five goals and, according to first-hand reports, could have had a few more points as well. The last college player to score five goals in a game, by the way? A guy you might have heard of named Brian Gionta(notes), who did it in 2001.

Extra credit

• UNH is off to an absolutely abysmal start. The Wildcats are 0-2-1 and have given up 14 goals. Apparent No. 1 starter Brian Foster has a GAA of 5.13 and a save percentage of .831 (14 goals allowed on 83 shots!) but has started all three games, which tells you how much coach Dick Umile trusts backup Matt DiGirolamo.

• Minnesota looked particularly poor against North Dakota last Friday, losing 4-0.

• Michigan State's Corey Tropp is tied with Minnesota-Duluth's Justin Fontaine and Jack Connolly for the national points lead at nine through four games. Fontaine has six goals already, five of which are on the power play. Hot on their heels, though, is Western Michigan's J.J. Crew, who has 4-2-6 in two games.

• Congratulations are once again due for the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, who improved to 3-1 with a pair of 4-2 wins over Air Force. I think everyone in college hockey will be pulling for them this year.

• The reason Nebraska-Omaha's off to a surprisingly hot start? Goalie John Faulkner. He, like his team, is 3-0-1, and his GAA is lower than his save percentage (0.94/.958). Yikes.

Ryan Lambert and writes about college hockey weekly here at Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.