As a good Irish Catholic, I have thus far been unsuccessful in getting the "Fighting Irish" classified as a hostile and abusive mascot with the NCAA. I've run across problems mostly because I enjoy whiskey more than I enjoy filing paperwork. So What? Wanna fight about it?
Despite my efforts to change his school's mascot, First Down Moses agreed to have a conversation with me about the Notre Dame hockey team.
DK: Thanks for taking the time to help me out. First off, how has Notre Dame evolved since the beginning of the season? Any surprises we should know about, pleasant or otherwise?
FDM: Looking at the first half of the season, most of ND’s games had final scores like 7-3, 5-4, and 6-3; after February 7th (the beginning of the current 8-2-1 streak), most of our wins ended up as 3-2, 2-0, and 2-1. So, what happened? I’d say that the Irish suddenly realized that they’re not built to win games by scoring 5-6 goals every night. It’s not that we don’t have several super-talented players…but our leading point-scorer (2011 Rookie of the Year T.J. "Ginger Ninja" Tynan, with 37 points) barely cracks the national Top 50, and our team offense is 22nd overall with a modest 3.00 goals per game—definitely not bad, but not something to hang your hat on every night, either.
Once this clicked with our guys, the difference in play was tangible. They now rank 5th in the country with only 2.10 goals allowed (1.83 in their last 11 games, and 1.13 in those 8 wins), and it shows. I remember in particular their two games vs. BU in late February (in the middle of Summerhays’ three-shutout streak). At times, it was downright laughable to see how easily our senior defensemen controlled the puck and smothered attempts to enter the Irish zone. So I’d say the team’s biggest evolution was embracing the art of winning tight, ugly games instead of losing flashy, high-scoring ones.
As far as pleasant individual surprises, there’s no question in my book: it’s freshman center Vince "Vinny" Hinostroza, who was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team after finishing second on the team with a 32-point season. What’s even more remarkable is that he managed to do this despite missing six games! Simply put, he sticks his nose in the middle of wherever the action is and makes stuff happen; more importantly, he’s become Tynan’s heir apparent to the "lightning-quick, assist-happy 5’9" playmaker" role.
DK: If Notre Dame has success this weekend, who are the players that make it happen?
FDM: Having a decent offense is good. Having a suffocating defense is great. Having a senior goalie named Steven Summerhays who’s getting hot at the right time and currently leads the country (and the Notre Dame record books) in shutouts is the absolute bestest. Yup, I’d say he’s kinda helpful with the whole "winning games" thing.
I’ve already mentioned the deadly playmaking of Tynan and Hinostroza, but all those assists imply that someone is scoring off of their passes. The guilty parties are usually seniors RW Bryan Rust and captain LW Jeff Costello, along with surprise sophomore sensations Sam Herr and Mario "My Dad’s Pretty Awesome" Lucia. If the Gophers lose track of one of those guys, they could be in for a long night.
West Regional Must Reads
West Regional Must Reads
Rounding out the senior linchpins are the hulking blue-liners Shayne Taker, Stephen Johns, and Kevin Lind. This senior class has been through a heckuva lot—reaching the Frozen Four in 2011, struggling to .500-ish in 2012, and then rebounding to win the final CCHA championship in 2013. As I hinted earlier, this team has taken on the patience and confidence of its seniors, and they will need every ounce of this if they plan on winning the West region.
DK: How do your fans feel about the program? Obviously Notre Dame is a big football/basketball school (aren't they all?). Is interest in hockey growing?
FDM: I’ve been going to Irish hockey games for the better part of a decade now, and I really, really like where the program’s going. I can’t overstate how much it helped when we built the 5,022-seat Compton Family Ice Arena in 2011 to replace the ugly temporary-turned-permanent 2,850-seat Joyce Center rink. It showed that ND was serious about becoming a national powerhouse in hockey, and the fanbase (students and locals alike) have embraced it wholeheartedly. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone and seen people in the stands wearing NHL jerseys—it’s become the kind of place that attracts anyone who’s simply a fan of hockey, something that was never possible with the old place. True, football is king here, but being in the heart of Blackhawks/Red Wings country means that we’ll always have a passionate and knowledgeable fanbase.
The other crucial move was (obviously) joining Hockey East when the CCHA decided to officially call itself the B1G (I mean, they were the last ones to know). I know a few purists who harrumphed about Notre Dame disrupting the whole "small-town New England" thing, but I feel pretty confident that the high level of play that ND has brought to the conference (and the challenging opponents we’ve received in return) have quieted those voices. Much like our other Olympic sports going from the crumbling Big East to the ACC, the move to Hockey East was all about wanting to "be the best by beating the best". In general, people are pumped about the future.
DK: Since the Irish hockey program is in a good place and looks to have a bright future, what are your expectations for this weekend?
FDM: Regarding expectations, I think the Irish have proved that they can consistently outplay the top guns (see: previously-invincible-on-home-ice Boston College). So although nobody will be calling for Jackson’s head if we lose (btw, anyone who wants to fire Lucia is out of their minds), the Irish ain’t coming in with a "just happy to be here" mentality.
DK: Thanks again, First Down Moses. I'm sure we'll touch base again if Minnesota and Notre Dame meet in the West Regional Final.