Who: Notre Dame (9-9-2) at Western Michigan (7-9-2)
When: 7:30 p.m. ET tonight
Where: Lawson Arena; Kalamazoo, Mich. (3,667)
Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
TV: CBS College Sports
Jeff Jackson continues to search for consistency from the Notre Dame hockey team.
Not quite two weeks ago the Irish returned to action after the holiday break at the Florida College Hockey Classic, where it opened the second half with a 3-2 overtime win over No. 6 Miami. But the championship game ended in a 2-1 loss to struggling Lake Superior State.
Notre Dame swept Lake Superior in a two-game home series earlier this season by a combined 10-4 score. Struggling against the Lakers left Jackson looking for answers.
“It’s just the thing that’s plagued us all year long,” he said. “It’s the lack of consistency. You can make excuses all you want. It’s just we have to have the ability to bounce back after a tough game or, that was an emotionally high win for us obviously and against a very good hockey team. Then you’re playing a team you beat handily early in the year and your mindset is probably not the same. The biggest opponent we face is ourselves and we have to find a way to overcome that.”
Jackson has been searching for solutions in practice since, with little time to waste before the Hockey East slate starts back up.
Notre Dame (9-9-2) steps out of conference this weekend for a home-and-home series against former Central Collegiate Hockey Association rival Western Michigan (7-9-2), which comes having split a pair of games since returning from break.
Next week brings a home-and-home series against Connecticut, which signals the home stretch of the conference season. Getting things right before then is top priority.
“I just think you’ve gotta have a high compete level,” said defenseman Robbie Russo. “And with doing that they throw a lot of stuff at us. Maybe guys are thinking a little bit too much. So, just make sure that your compete level and your effort level is really high. When you do that I think the rest takes care of itself.”
The Irish travel to Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo, Mich., for the first game tonight against Western Michigan. Lawson is typically one of the rowdiest venues in college hockey, so it presents some challenges of its own.
“I love that place,” Russo laughed.
Notre Dame will return home to the Compton Family Ice Arena for the second game of the series.
Notre Dame will carry on without freshman defenseman Nate Billitier, who left the team and university after the Florida College Hockey Classic.
Billitier instead will suit up for the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League. He appeared just nine times this season with zero points and didn't feature in either game of the tournament in Florida despite making the trip.
“Ever since I was a kid I wanted to play in the OHL,” Billitier told the Kingston Whig-Standard. “I just decided I want to pursue my hockey career. I decided the OHL was the best place to help me accomplish my goal.”
Jackson hoped Billitier would hang around despite being passed up by fellow freshman defenseman Tony Bretzman in recent weeks.
“Some kids are willing to have that patience and some kids aren’t,” Jackson said. “It’s unfortunate. Nate’s a good kid and I wish him well. But we’ve had guys like Sammy Herr as a freshman, guys like Andy Ryan. We’ve got guys in that situation now. If you work hard, you earn a spot. And the funny thing is he’s probably closer to being in the lineup than out of the lineup than those guys probably were at this stage because we’re so young on the blue line.”
Freshman goaltender Cal Petersen may be close to locking down a starting spot, although Jackson plans to give Chad Katunar more chances.
Petersen started both games of the Florida College Hockey Classic, making a combined 36 saves. So far this season he’s started 12 games with a 2.54 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
“He had a good weekend,” Jackson said. “I’m not locked in yet. If I get locked in it’ll probably be more in February. It could happen sooner. It’s gonna be up to Chad now. The next time he gets a start he’s gonna have to play well and then Cal’s gonna have to come back with another good performance. Even as good as he played on the weekend for the most part he was still at a 90 save percentage. I was just reading the other day that 92 is not good enough anymore in the National Hockey League. You’ve gotta be 94, 95, which is unbelievable.”
Katunar has a 2.85 goals-against average and .905 save percentage in nine appearances this season.