Around this time last year Robbie Russo threw himself into a routine with little reward.
Russo learned at the semester break he wouldn’t be eligible to finish the season. That meant Notre Dame lost one of its top defensemen and Russo lost the ability to hit the ice every weekend with his teammates. The New York Islanders draft pick wouldn’t be able to forego the rest of his college career either.
Islanders brass urged Russo, now a senior, to remain in South Bend rather than pursue professional hockey sooner than expected.
“They wanted me to stay here,” Russo said. “Then your only option is to probably work hard. I just started doing that I think. I don’t know. I guess I’m producing now and a lot of that can be drawn back to then.”
Russo logged hours of ice time with then-volunteer assistant coach Brock Sheahan, who has since moved on to a full-time assistant post at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
He then returned this season with a vengeance. After logging his first career hat trick last weekend against Connecticut en route to a four-goal, one-assist weekend, Russo is the top scoring defenseman nationally with 24 points.
Notre Dame counts Russo as one of two double-digit goal scorers. Winger Mario Lucia has 15 and Russo 11 to go along with 13 assists. He’s averaging a point per game with a plus-14 rating.
All that while consistently logging the most ice time of any Irish player.
“I just think he’s finally playing up to his potential,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “Sometimes it takes kids a little longer. It’s really about him taking the responsibility of his ability level. He’s always had the offensive ability but never had the assertiveness to go with it. He hasn’t given up defensively with doing more offensively, which is the real key because we couldn’t afford for that to happen with three freshman defensemen playing every weekend. I think he’s done a good job in helping lead guys back there too.”
Russo credits the one-on-one sessions with Sheahan as a major factor in improving all areas of his game. He also mentions strength and conditioning director Tony Rolinski as a positive influence during his time without game action.
Working with Sheahan and Rolinski proved rewarding, but only over time. Staying busy kept Russo from thinking about not being on the ice for games.
“That was definitely the toughest part,” Russo said. “But I was so tired at the end of those weeks sometimes, you know? That was probably the hardest part to work that hard but not be able to play. I think what I did, Tony helped me a lot in the weight room. Just seeing him a lot too, always active, always doing something.”
Russo now leads Notre Dame (10-11-3, 5-2-3 Hockey East) into the home stretch of this season.
The Irish took four points off Connecticut last week and now sit fifth in the Hockey East standings. They play a two-game series at Northeastern (8-11-4, 4-7-2 Hockey East) this weekend. Northeastern is 3-1-3 since returning from the holiday break.
Either way, Russo intends to keep using improved form to carry Notre Dame up the standings.
“I think that was kind of a goal of mine coming into the year,” Russo said. “To start out well, obviously, and you want to finish strong but you want to build on it throughout the whole season and keep getting better at the right time. As a team, I thought we played great (last) weekend. Hopefully we can build off that and keep getting better and better as it starts to get to the good time of the year.”
Petersen earns another start
Jackson could be zeroing in on Cal Petersen as his goaltender down the stretch.
Petersen started both games of the Connecticut series, stopping 45 of the 49 shots he faced for an overall .918 save percentage. Jackson has been looking for either Petersen or Chad Katunar to approach the .920 save percentage threshold.
“He played well on Sunday,” Jackson said. “I thought Friday he didn’t really have much chance on any of those goals. But great goalies have to make a save on one of those, so all the sudden we win the game 3-2. He’s still learning that. He’s still a freshman. But I thought he did a good job on Sunday. He certainly warranted another start. I’m not gonna just shut down Chad for the rest of the season, but Cal has taken a little bit of a step on Chad.”
Petersen is up to a .906 save percentage this season.
Cook questionable for Northeastern
Notre Dame will likely be without fourth line center Dawson Cook against Northeastern. Cook suffered a concussion last Friday against Connecticut after a rough into the boards.
“He’s probably questionable right now,” Jackson said Wednesday. “He hasn’t practiced yet this week, so I doubt if he’s gonna be ready for the weekend.”
Russo surges in second half
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