Matt Cashore /

Wade carves out defensive niche

Justin Wade picked hockey over football in sixth grade, a path that led him to the Notre Dame blue line. After sitting his freshman year and contributing last winter, the junior has pushed his game forward again.

Who: Notre Dame (1-1-2) vs. Connecticut (3-2-0)
When: 3:05 p.m. ET Saturday; 2:35 p.m. ET Sunday
Where: XL Center; Hartford, Conn. (8,089); Barclays Center; Brooklyn, N.Y. (15,795)
Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
TV: None
Twitter: @ND_hockey

Justin Wade set his course to Notre Dame in the sixth grade.

Back then the junior defenseman split time between football and hockey. Somewhere along the way he missed a football game for hockey and his coach told him to choose. That was it for defensive end and running back. Wade focused on skating and board battles instead.

That choice led Wade to the Chicago Mission youth program, Fargo at the major junior level and then Notre Dame for college. It took time for Wade to make an impact for the Irish, playing just six games as a freshman.

“I know freshman year and sophomore year I was coming in early,” Wade said. “Just get work on my stick game. Even during practices and after practices, I’d have a goal. I’d try to keep my passing down from the practice before. If I had three missed passes the practice before, I’d try to keep it down to two. I’d go from two to one, try to eliminate that from my game.”

Last season Wade’s improved game and defense-first approach started to make an impact with Stephen Johns off to the Blackhawks system.

He played 41 games and registered seven points, including his first career goal during a 6-1 win over Connecticut in mid-January. Wade finished the season with a plus-7 rating and 49 blocked shots, good for third on the team.

Already this season, Wade has started to emerge from obscurity. He scored a shorthanded goal against Minnesota-Duluth last weekend and heads into this weekend’s Hockey East series with Connecticut tied with Steven Fogarty with a team-high eight blocked shots.

“That's the unfortunate part about being a good defender,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “You don’t always get recognized for it. Justin is a guy that in his first year, year and a half or two years even, his hands hold him back a little bit. His ability to make a play with the puck, he’s a solid skater. He’s really solid on his skates. It makes him tough to knock down. He’s got that innate ability to play a real hard game, a real heavy game, without taking penalties. That’s a pretty rare thing.”

Wade checks in at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds and is no stranger to dishing out punishing hits. But for all the checking he’s only taken one minor penalty in four games this season.

Turns out that’s kind of an art form, one Wade wants to maintain.

“You have to pick the spots where you want to be physical,” Wade said. “I know there’s a couple times, I think the Friday game, I probably could’ve lit someone up. But I had to back off because it was a 50-50 chance the puck was going to be there or not. It’s just knowing how to go in a situation, like going into the corner and the guy’s back is in front of you and you’re chasing him in the corner. You have to keep your hands low or not fully put your body into him, just lean into him instead of a full check. It’s a feel type thing.”

Conference play begins at UConn

Notre Dame begins its road through Hockey East this weekend with a unique trip to face Connecticut.

The first game will be Saturday afternoon at the XL Center in Hartford while the series finale will be an afternoon tilt at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. So begins a third trip through Hockey East with eighth (2013-14) and fifth place (2014-15) finishes under the belt.

Jackson continues to evolve his program to compete at the top level of the conference.

“We’re trying to get our structure in place if you want to call it that,” Jackson said. “I call it framework as far as the priorities at what we have to get better at and we’re not there yet. When we play teams, even like Duluth, it’s not like there’s any easy opponents. In college hockey there isn’t. It’s just about trying to neutralize the opposing team’s speed in a legal way, in a good way, just by the way we play. We’re not there yet.”

Last season the Irish went 10-7-5 in league play with a win and tie against Connecticut.

Nardella nabs Hockey East honors

Hockey East named defenseman Bobby Nardella its Rookie of the Week after his performance against Minnesota-Duluth last weekend.

He helped Notre Dame to a pair of 3-3 draws with the first goal of his career Friday and a pair of assists Saturday, his first multi-point game. Top Stories