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March 5, 2014 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Second Thoughts

Notre Dame is the Best Eighth Seed You'll Ever See

by Ryan Lambert/Columnist

There always seems to be that team in any conference, which everyone agrees is the team you “don't want” to play in the postseason. That team, this year, is Notre Dame.

There is however a difference between these Irish and the usual No. 8 team in any conference, and it's a pretty clear one: There's no actual reason why they should be the eighth-best team in Hockey East when they are, by any reasonable measure apart from their in-league record, one of the five or six best teams in the nation. With that having been said, there's obviously a big drop-off between, say, the Nos. 1 and 2 teams and everyone else in the field, but the Irish have shown they're more than capable against top-quality opponents.

This past weekend they dispatched Boston College, 2-1, on the road, which was no small feat. First, because BC hadn't lost a home game in the league yet this season (giving away one point, to Massachusetts, in eight previous games), and second because in their previous meeting this year, at Fenway Park, BC scored four goals on just 21 shots.

And that, in the end, is the reason that anyone looks down on Notre Dame at all. They had a tough run of league games in the middle of the season. And it started with Steven Summerhays.

“He had some inconsistencies starting the second half,” said coach Jeff Jackson in the wake of the win over BC. “I don’t think he was really sharp after Christmas. Obviously, that’s where it all starts. Your goaltender has to be your difference-maker.’’

And for most of the year, Summerhays has been just that; he's 10th in the nation in save percentage at .929. And that's having been weighed down by a handful of games in which he was positively dreadful from mid-January to early February. In five games, against Lake Superior State (twice), Northeastern, and then UNH (twice), he posted save percentages of .895 or less, broken up by a 36-save shutout of the Huskies a night after conceding four goals on just seven shots. Since eating the losses to UNH, which effectively doomed his team to the lower ranks of Hockey East, he's posted a .965 save percentage in seven games. And in the 17 games before Christmas, he stopped .931.

In all, his slump from after Christmas to the first day of February — a long time of being bad to suffer, to be sure — tacked 20 goals onto his account in just eight games, on just 167 shots (.880). During that time, the Irish dropped four league games out of five, as you might expect. Keep in mind, that's nearly half of their total losses in-conference this season. Excepting those eight games, Summerhays has a .942 save percentage this year, and he looks to be back to that level now.

There is also a common misconception, one repeated to me at the BC game by the way, that Notre Dame is not very good at home, for whatever reason. This is patently false. In league competition, it has dropped just seven points of 20 at home, which is a winning percentage you usually take. The Irish tied Merrimack (11/16), then lost to UMass (12/7), Northeastern (1/24), and Maine (2/7). Three of those are not very good teams to which you might concede points, with Maine having been winless away from Alfond until that 2-1 win. But they've never been swept at home.

And the issue that really plagued them in all of those four games, as well as most of those they lost on the road, is that their team shooting percentage is really quite poor. At 6.86 percent in conference play, it's not only second-worst in Hockey East (ahead of only a Merrimack team largely bereft of shooting talent), it's also 54th in the nation. So far, most of the data from the last two seasons show that, in college hockey more so than the NHL, talent can to some degree control shooting percentage — BC, St. Cloud, and North Dakota rank Nos. 1, 3, and 4 in the country this year — and thus one looks at the Notre Dame roster versus that mark and says, “Well they should be better than that.” And they are.

Since that Summerhays that made up nearly a quarter of the season ended, Notre Dame's shooting percentage has gone up along with its save percentage, and in fact is now at 8.09 for the last five games. Effectively, they've raised their shooting percentage by about one-third over this final quarter of the season, and while that's a small sample, they also seem likely to stretch that out against BU in the first round of the playoffs, given what we know about the Terriers.

When they have a shooting percentage of just 8 percent — keeping in mind that the current national average is 9.24 percent — Notre Dame is 17-2 (7-1 HE). When they're below that level, they're just 3-10-2 (2-8-2 HE). Those losses when shooting anything approaching NCAA norms, by the way, were to Minnesota and BC.

Jackson said after their most recent victory that the Irish are winning now because they've finally recovered from the glut of injuries to very important players they suffered early this year, but that they're still “not playing with a full lineup” even at this point. This is a team that hasn't lost in six games, and also went 2-2 with the two best clubs in the country this season. Both of those losses were one-goal games.

The likelihood that they end up playing the Eagles again in these Hockey East playoffs isn't what you'd call low. Assuming the favorites all advance (probable), they would have another date with BC in a week and a half. It's tough to bet against Jerry York's boys in any game for the rest of the year, especially with their having had their noses bloodied on Senior Night to close out the regular season.

But if anyone's going to put a scare into them, or anyone else they face in the league quarterfinals, it's these Irish, who are improving considerably at just the right time.

Second thoughts

Atlantic Hockey

Air Force: The Falcons earned a bye in the Atlantic Hockey tournament, which is helping them recover from a few injuries. George Michalke is now back eating solid food after fighting pneumonia, so that's good. You definitely want everyone you dress capable of eating solid food.

American International: AIC gave up nine goals this past weekend and only scored two, which sounds just about right. They finished the regular-season on a game losing streak.

Army: Freshman netminder Parker Gahagen was named AHA Rookie of the Week because he stopped 76 of 80 shots on the weekend in a split with Holy Cross. Over his last four starts, he's made 145 saves on 153 SOG (.948). That's pretty good.

Bentley: Shoutout to Brett Gensler, who became the league's all-time leading scorer on Friday night, as a goal and an assist bumped him up to 159 points in AHA play. The next night, he was held off the scoresheet, because of course he was.

Canisius: The Griffs suffered a sweep at RIT, scoring just one goal in 120 minutes. They've now won just two games since the start of February.

UConn: The Huskies are http://www.dailycampus.com/sports/men-s-hockey-uconn-earns-first-round-bye-in-aha-tournament-1.3146964#.UxZsufSwK6Y">through to the second round of the AHA tournament already, by virtue of having won 15 games in the conference. That's despite having lost to Sacred Heart to close out the regular season.

Holy Cross: Saying the Crusaders are “looking to earn their third NCAA Tournament appearance in program history” strikes me as being a little disingenuous but I guess it's technically true so there's no need to call the Better Business Bureau.

Mercyhurst: The Lakers wrapped their first-ever AHA title campaign with one hell of goaltending performance. Jordan Tibbett stopped 48 of 50, and if you're wondering if you should be concerned that the conference regular-season champions gave up 50 shots to Robert Morris, the answer is yes.

Niagara: Tough way to go into the playoffs: Their senior captain and a quality defenseman missed their final regular-season game, during which they also lost two of the three guys on their top line to injury as well. They finished the game with 15 skaters. Fun.

RIT: The Tigers played their final game ever in their home rink, 46 years after it opened, and this is a good write-up about it.

Robert Morris: If RMU had won on Saturday, they would have picked up a bye through the first round of the playoffs. But when you're playing the best team in the conference, that's not always going to work out for you.

Sacred Heart: The Pioneers got off to a pretty good start on Saturday, leading UConn 2-0 through 40 minutes, and basically making the Huskies feel like they were doing everything wrong. When you're in Sacred Heart's position, that's a good way to be playing.

ECAC

Brown: As a general rule, you never want to “crack under playoff pressure” before the playoffs start. Doesn't speak well to how things will go next week. Zero goals on the weekend. No good.

Clarkson: Decent result for the Golden Knights to draw Quinnipiac as they closed out the regular season, but they're going to need to get a lot better if they want to do anything of note in the playoffs. Not a lot of scoring lately at all, with seven goals in the last six games.

Colgate: I doubt many people had this team finishing second in the ECAC, but here we are. Eric Mihalik allowed just one goal on 35 shots to get them all the way there.

Cornell: As you might guess, Cornell was way, way up for senior night against archrival Harvard on Saturday, and though it took overtime, they still picked up the win.

Dartmouth: Charles Grant made 36 saves and picked up a 1-0 shutout win at Lynah on Friday. It was the first time in more than 54 years that a Big Green netminder held the Big Red scoreless in Ithaca, which in my opinion is quite a long time.

Harvard: What more fitting way to end this frustrating regular season for the Crimson than with a heartbreaking overtime loss to their biggest enemy? It really couldn't have been more appropriate if you'd scripted it.

Princeton: Conceding eight goals in two games sounds just about right for these Tigers on a trip to the North Country.

Quinnipiac: For those scoring at home, this is how you end a losing streak.

RPI: Pretty sure the Engineers could do some damage in the ECAC tournament, or they could roll over and get stomped. This is a truly bizarre team this year.

St. Lawrence: Big ups to Jeremy Wick for picking up a hat trick on senior night. This was very appropriate because Wick is in fact a senior.

Union: You know you're in good shape when both the goalies you use on the weekend pick up weekly awards from the league on Tuesday. Colin Stevens had a 49-save shutout on Friday, and Alex Sakellaropoulos had a 26-save shutout the next night. Lots of shutouts.

Yale: Another big performance on senior night, this time by pretty much everyone. The Bulldogs outshot RPI 41-18 and took only one penalty in waltzing to a 5-0 win, keyed by five different goalscorers.

Hockey East

Boston College: This headline is not necessarily representative of the loss on Saturday. It's not that the Eagles weren't good, it's that Notre Dame was better. They just put BC to sleep.

Boston University: Of all the things I thought I'd see on the weekend was a BU sweep of Northeastern. And that was with a number of players suspended for at least one game in the series.

Maine: I will say, however, that seeing the Black Bears swept at home was also not really on my radar. Just a deeply weird weekend overall, and one that's put the Maine goaltending situation in flux. Formerly-great Martin Ouellette had an .867 save percentage over his last four games.

UMass: The Minutemen had the final weekend off, and now head to Vermont with transfer Frank Vatrano finally eligible to play. Let's see how much of an impact he makes on a team with almost no scoring depth.

UMass Lowell: Not that going up to Vermont is easy, as Lowell can attest. They got a late overtime game-winner on Friday but ended up with a split because they allowed goals five seconds apart in the first period the next night.

Merrimack: Another weird result? Merrimack taking a game from UNH on Friday (weird in and of itself) but then putting 50 shots on net the next night and losing 5-2.

New Hampshire: That UNH win, by the way, was keyed by Kevin Goumas, who had points on four of UNH's five goals. He's now just the 16th player in school history to get to 100 career assists, which is something else.

Northeastern: Northeastern suffering a home defeat to BU was further notable because it was BU's first road win of the season. Clay Witt has an .888 save percentage over his last six games, and was .851 on the weekend against a fairly feckless offensive team. Time to start worrying.

Notre Dame: This was seriously just a deeply comprehensive win for the Irish. It was very, very impressive.

Providence: After bumbling along for most of the early part of the new year, the Friars seem to have regained their form at the exact right time. This is another team that no one should really want to face.

Vermont: Brody Hoffman was basically the reason either game this weekend was close for the Catamounts. He was absolutely the reason they won on Saturday.

Player of the Week

In that 8-0 win over St. Lawrence on Friday, Matthew Peca had a school record six points. That's a good month for a lot of guys.

The Johnny Gaudreau Goal of the Week

Look at this thing Johnny Gaudreau did at 43 seconds. It's hard to even be impressed any more.

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