|Who: Notre Dame (17-17-5) at Massachusetts-Lowell (18-10-6)
When: 7:15 p.m. ET tonight; 7 p.m. ET Saturday; Sunday TBA (if necessary)
Where: Tsongas Center; Lowell, Mass. (6,003)
|Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
Mario Lucia is keen to remind his teammates goal scoring is hard work even when it looks simple.
Sometimes the junior winger takes a little bit of good-natured grief from other players in the dressing room for a long list of tap in goals, where nothing more than tapping the puck into a wide open net is required. But any hockey person will tell you, that doesn’t happen by accident.
“You’ve gotta put yourself in that position and the pucks will find you,” Lucia said.
More of those pucks have been finding Lucia this season. He leads Notre Dame into its Hockey East quarterfinal series at Massachusetts-Lowell this weekend with a team high 20 goals, his first time reaching that number as a college hockey player.
Lucia is one of just 11 players in the country to reach the 20-goal mark. His total has improved each season in South Bend from 12 goals as a freshman to 16 last season. Union forward Daniel Ciampini leads the nation with 26 goals.
Other career highs for Lucia this season include a plus-9 rating, 96 total shots and a .208 shooting percentage. Goal scoring, however, is Lucia’s biggest contribution.
“There’s no question it’s a sixth sense for a hockey player,” head coach Jeff Jackson said. “But it’s also, a large part of it is will. You have to be willing to stand in those areas or get to those dirty areas of the ice. He knows where to be when he’s in position to get a rebound or receive a pass or whatever.
“He’s always in a shooting mindset and that’s part of it too. You’ve gotta have that gun cocked in order to shoot. He’s usually ready to shoot the puck when he gets it.”
Lucia has worked on certain shortcomings each offseason to keep growing as both goal scorer and all-around forward. With more strength came and increased willingness to mix it up in front of the net and decreased the chances he’ll be pushed out of the way or have his stick lifted at a critical moment.
Something that seems so fundamental — being able to hang onto the puck when a defender wants to poke it away — leads to more scoring chances.
It also helps that Jackson has kept Lucia on a line with center Vince Hinostroza for the better part of three seasons. Hinostroza leads the team with 32 assists this season and the line as a whole has found a higher gear with the addition of freshman Anders Bjork on the other wing.
Bjork’s willingness to back check and Hinostroza’s creativity has led to easy goals too.
“Most of them are just right in front of the net,” Lucia said. “Couple of them are shots, one-timers, but I’d say probably 70 percent of them are just right around the net. So just getting to the gritty areas, that’s where you’re gonna score. Then obviously I have Vinnie to find me, so that helps too. He’s probably assisted on 60 or 70 percent of my goals.”
So while teammates might continue to give Lucia a hard time for a tap in goal here and there they know a couple things — those help the team win and he’s putting in the work to get them.
“He’s had some easy backhand tap goals,” winger Sam Herr said, “but he’s getting those because he’s competing for that area. He deserves them.”
Starting tonight Notre Dame (17-17-5) opens play in its best-of-three quarterfinal series against Lowell, a team the Irish have yet to beat in Hockey East play.
Lowell (18-10-6) begins its defense of the league tournament championship fresh off a bye after finishing fourth in the regular season standings. Notre Dame is 0-4-1 all time against the River Hawks, including a tie and loss earlier this season.
“They’re just a really good team,” captain Steven Fogarty said. “Even last year, they’re frustrating to play. They don’t give you much. They run their system to a T and that’s what makes them so successful. Four good lines, six good D and a good goalie. We’ve gotta match that, roll four lines and play our game. We’ll see what happens.”
Lowell runs a unique system to Hockey East opponents but one that might look familiar to longtime Notre Dame hockey observers. It has held the Irish to just four goals total in five meetings since the 2013-14 season.
“It’s the same system that Ferris State used in the CCHA and I actually think Lowell uses it more from an offensive perspective,” Jackson said. “Where most teams play with their two defensemen and their center low and outnumber with those three guys down low, Lowell plays with their wingers and defensemen low and their center high. It’s more of a 1-2-2 with the one being at the top instead of a 2-1-2 type of system.
“The biggest thing with Lowell is they don’t give you a lot of time to cycle the puck because there’s always one winger and two defensemen on you. The other wing is at the net covering the net front and the center is high trying to cover both points. And they transition from it very well. That’s what makes them so effective.”
Special teams might lean toward the Irish against Lowell as its penalty kill continues to do good work.
Notre Dame leads the league with a 90 percent kill rate against conference opponents. Goalie Cal Petersen deserves some of the credit, although Jackson feels good about the personnel and game plans put together by associate head coach Paul Pooley.
“Goaltending is part of it,” Jackson said. “But I think we’ve found the right chemistry of seven forwards and six defensemen, especially four top guys. One that we’ll probably be without this weekend but I think we found the right mix of people that understand what we’re trying to do and they’ve done a better job of executing it. I credit Paul for having a game plan and a strategy against every power play. It’s not just about the in-zone it’s about the forecheck as well.”