March 17, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Same Old Story

Notre Dame Still Can't Solve Lowell

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer (@JoeMeloni)

A few days prior to Friday's Hockey East semifinal, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson praised Massachusetts-Lowell coach Norm Bazin and his work as the leader of the River Hawk program.

He mentioned Bazin's brilliant execution of his plan upon taking the job. Jackson mentioned how his Fighting Irish, like most others, have struggled with UML in recent memory.

The depth of those problems are, however, significantly more pronounced than they are for the rest of Hockey East. The River Hawks defeated Notre Dame, 5-1, Friday afternoon in a game that hardly even seemed that close.

"It's familar territory," Jackson said. "UMass-Lowell is a great team. They've had our number ever since we started playing in the league four years ago. Same thing tonight."

It's the third time in four years in Hockey East that Notre Dame's tournament run has ended against the River Hawks. Overall, Notre Dame, which leaves Hockey East for the Big Ten after this season, has gone 2-9-2 against UML in its four years in the league. They were outscored, 36-18, by the River Hawks in those games. This includes eight regular season games and five Hockey East tournament games.

Lowell's combination of older, stronger players, brilliant system design and perfect execution have proved nearly impossible for Notre Dame to overcome. While the Fighting Irish don't have to worry about playing UML in seasons to come, it's difficult to suggest a team with such a flaw can win trophies in this era of college hockey. An inability to adjust or to cope with older teams are precisely the type of things that will extend Notre Dame's trophy drought even in the Big Ten.

Jackson has unquestionably explained the proper way to attack and defend Lowell to his players. However, he simply hasn't been able to get his group to execute on the plan he's put in place.

"They certainly create a lot of pressure and for you to make bad decisions," he said. "We were certainly our own worst enemy tonight with a lot of turnovers in key areas of the ice and then our coverage in our defensive zone. Those two things stand out to me. Things that are really uncharacteristic of how our team's played over the last two months. I can't explain it."

Twice on Friday, the Fighting Irish put together lengthy spells of possession before one careless play at the top of the Lowell zone resulted in a turnover that the River Hawks almost instantly converted. Once, the mistake came early in the second period to make it 3-1 UML and another early in the third to make it 5-1 Lowell.

"A lot of uncharacteristic mistakes," Jackson said. "We have to give Lowell their due. They created a lot of those situations. But we turned pucks over in the offensive end too that led to the goals. ... We've been doing a really good job of managing the puck over the last six weeks. Tonight, we didn't. I'll take responsibility for it. I didn't have them prepared enough to do it tonight.

Dating back to the program's time in the CCHA, the Irish didn't routinely struggle with any individual opponent. Not that any of those teams played Lowell's unique system.

There were plenty of CCHA teams who recruited players at least somewhat fitting the Lowell model of slightly older and more experienced players. It simply seems like Jackson was unwilling to alter his team's approach when it faced UMass-Lowell or his instructions just weren't the right ones. UND has enough success to justify a commitment to its usual approach. It simply hasn't worked against UML.

Jackson himself built similar teams in his years at Lake Superior State. While the system was markedly different, it was the same idea of identifying the best way for him to build a winning team given LSSU's status, resources and overall place in the college hockey landscape at the time. It's part of the reason UND failed to get wins against Lowell, but it's not something Jackson is willing to use as an excuse.

The debate between teams recruiting older players and those attracting younger, higher-ceiling players will rage on for years. Part of UND's motivation for leaving Hockey East was playing against schools more fitting of its own recruiting profile, nevermind the geographic and financial benefits of being back in a bus league.

The Fighting Irish recruit directly against Michigan, Wisconsin and the other Big Ten teams. While they see Boston College, Boston University and the occasional other Hockey East schools along the recruiting trail, it's likely not as often as it will be with the majority of its new Big Ten rivals.

"I've mentioned it several times. The teams that were the top teams in the CCHA, ever since that league disbanded, have all struggled," Jackson said.

"It's like not really being at home. It's been like that for all of us. If you look at Michigan, Michign State and Miami. We've been fairly successful in Hockey East but not to the point where we've won championships.

"As much as we've been proud to be a member of Hockey East, I've never felt quite sure that we felt like we belonged here. It's kind of a crazy thought, but it's the way it is. It's certainly not because of anyone's actions. It's just that you don't necessarily feel you're where you belong."

Despite Friday's loss, Notre Dame is essentially a guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament. The Fighting Irish put together a remarkable second half of the season and fell just one point short of a regular-season Hockey East title and two points short of an outright win.

It's a team that is plainly good enough to advance to a Frozen Four and beyond.

Unless, it seems, the Irish draw UMass-Lowell.

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