Jeff Jackson is always on guard, perhaps more so for an opponent without much track record.
Arizona State qualifies. Starting their first full season of Division I play, the Sun Devils hit the ice tonight against Notre Dame with a hodgepodge roster of younger players and transfers. They went 5-22-2 against varsity programs last year while playing a mixed schedule that included some club teams.
But there’s no shortage of experience. Arizona State has several players seasoned in junior leagues plus players that started their careers at established programs like Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, Northeastern, UMass-Lowell and Boston University.
“Any team like them, like Penn State was a couple years ago, those are dangerous teams,” Jackson said. “Especially considering how they built their team. They probably did it the way they needed to. They have a lot of transfers and they have some graduate transfers. They’re gonna be an older team with a lot of guys that are good players.”
Regardless, Notre Dame’s veteran head coach doesn’t plan to get bogged down in scouting reports.
Instead, he plans to keep the Irish focused on themselves. Jackson played several underclassmen in last week’s exhibition game and continues to tinker with line combinations, defensive pairings and special teams units.
About the only thing that’s set in stone is the starting goaltender. Captain Cal Petersen will make the vast majority of starts.
Otherwise, the team is a work in programs. Jackson said Wednesday he still had a couple power play and penalty kill spots up for grabs heading into the final practices. He’s also continuing to mold the team as a whole.
“You have to play to your strengths,” Jackson said. “We’re still hammering home our identity right now as far as how we want to play the game. We’ve gotta keep pushing that with our guys, make sure they know how we want to play the game. I think the guys are grasping it. There was ups and downs in that (exhibition) game on Sunday where we were inconsistent in some execution, which is gonna be normal this time of the year. As every season starts off, you slowly evolve.”
In a way, opening with Arizona State might help that cause.
Notre Dame will be so unfamiliar with its opponent that the focus is best turned inward.
“I think that’s a positive,” said winger Anders Bjork. “Obviously, they’re a new team so you don’t know much about them but I think it’s a good test for us. We’ll have to adjust and adapt to whatever they throw at us and focus on our game. If we do the things we’re capable of I think we’re gonna be fine no matter what happens, what they do.”
Irish lose veteran defenseman
Notre Dame heads into the season without one of its top defensemen.
Justin Wade is no longer part of the program for reasons Jackson declined to disclose. Wade played 34 games last season with one goal, six assists and a plus-5 rating. He was second on the team with 56 blocked shots.
Forward Ali Thomas is also not playing this season after deciding to walk away from hockey altogether.
“Neither one of them are on the team,” Jackson said. “I’d rather talk about the guys that are here. Ali basically decided not to return. It was two separate situations.”
Theoretically, Wade could return with another year of eligibility. Jackson didn’t get into whether that would be a possibility down the road.
Wary of whistles
Increased emphasis on obstruction penalties this season is something Jackson has already noticed.
Notre Dame was whistled for eight penalties in its exhibition game. Three were for interference, another for holding, three more for hooking and a slash. Cleaning up those issues has been a focal point of practice.
“We’re gonna have to really play disciplined,” Jackson said. “Even with that you might still end up with six, seven penalties. We had like nine in the last game. I would expect early on we’re gonna get our special teams tested a fair amount.”