Jeff Jackson isn’t ready to give up on this season. The same goes for his program.
Despite season-long battles with inconsistency that have left the Irish 9-11-2 overall heading into the final seven weeks of the regular season, Jackson sees goals still within reach.
Are improvements needed? Yes. But nobody at the Compton Family Ice Arena views an uptick in play as out of the question.
“We’re gonna have to be prepared to compete and battle for 60 minutes against a lot of good teams that are in front of us here,” Jackson said. “And a lot of the teams that are below us in the standings are all of the sudden starting to get hot.”
Notre Dame takes a 4-2-2 league record back into Hockey East play this weekend with a home-and-home series against Connecticut, another relative newcomer to the league. It will be the first time the programs have met.
Boston University and UMass-Lowell sit atop the conference with 16 points apiece, each having played 10 games. The Irish have 10 points in their eight games.
Connecticut arrives in South Bend at 7-10-4 overall and 4-4-1 in the league, good for nine points and a spot just behind Notre Dame right about in the middle of the pack.
“We’re sitting pretty good in Hockey East,” said Irish winger Thomas DiPauli. “We’ve got a lot of Hockey East games coming up here, so we’ve gotta make it a point for us to beat top teams so we get that bye and have a good spot in the playoffs.”
Facing Connecticut this weekend represents a quirk in the schedule that has the Irish hosting tonight then traveling toe Storrs, Conn., for the series finale. The second game is set for noon on Sunday.
All other league series for Notre Dame are two-game sets in one location, home or away. Jackson expects these series to be split over a greater distance in future schedules.
“With 12 teams there’s an unbalanced schedule,” Jackson said. “We’re gonna have to play one opponent home and away and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna be the same weekend. In the future, the next couple years I believe it’s gonna be Boston College. So, we get a chance to have BC in our building every year for one game. Next year I think there’s one before Christmas then I think then there’s another game like the week before the Beanpot (tournament) or something like that. That’s probably more consistent what’s gonna happen in the future.”
Jackson remains committed to rotating both goaltenders.
Neither sophomore Chad Katunar nor freshman Cal Petersen have distinguished themselves enough since holiday break to secure more than a couple starts in a row. Both played well for spurts but also faltered at times last weekend in consecutive losses to Western Michigan.
“I thought Chad struggled on Saturday,” Jackson said. “I thought Cal played well on Friday until the very end. Last two goals were not great goals. He’s gotta find a way to be the closer. He’s gotta learn to play better in the third period, how to make sure that’s when he buckles down and doesn’t psyche himself out. He is a freshman though.”
Jackson wants one of the goaltenders to begin approaching a .920 save percentage. Katunar (.900) and Petersen (.904) both remain well short of that mark.
Former Notre Dame winger Bryan Rust made his NHL debut earlier this season with the Pittsburgh Penguins and has since become a lineup regular.
Rust has featured in 14 games total since making his debut on Dec. 13. He scored his first goal Dec. 15 against Tampa Bay and notched his first assist Jan. 2, also against the Lightning. Jackson foresaw potential for Rust to make his move to the big club sooner than later.
“I saw him in the hallway when they were here for the pro camp and I took him down the hallway and I talked to him,” Jackson said. “I seriously believed. I told him he was the one I thought might get a shot earlier than the rest of them. I’m talking about the senior class. And just to be prepared for the similar setback that he had in his sophomore year. It’s gonna happen again to him where he’s gonna hit a wall. He’ll be sent back down to the minors or whatever happens.
“I’m really proud of him and I’m really happy for him but I just tried to prepare him for the fact that kinda what he went through his sophomore year will happen to him again probably because it happens to everybody, where you hit that wall and all the sudden you’re sent down to the minors. When he does face some adversity he’s gotta stay strong.”
Rust scored 17 goals and added 16 assists for Notre Dame last season.