December 26, 2006
Postcard: A Job Half-Done

By Jayson Hron

Cautious optimism has given way to unbridled enthusiasm at Notre Dame where the No. 3-ranked Irish, still grinning after home-and-home sweep of Michigan earlier this month, are in prime position to chase the program’s first-ever CCHA title. With the Dec. 10 win establishing a school record for pre-Christmas victories, Notre Dame – just months removed from a rather sour eighth-place finish – is thinking bigger than ever before.

“I knew we were going to be better than last year,” said senior defenseman Wes O’Neill. “But we weren’t expecting to be 14-3-1 heading into Christmas break.”

The Irish’s rapid rise has coincided with a notable defensive renaissance, a credit both to Jeff Jackson’s coaching and a team-wide commitment to stinginess. Through 18 games, Notre Dame has surrendered a paltry 1.56 goals per game – fewest in the nation – and is on pace to allow fewer than 70 goals this season. For perspective, consider that just twice in CCHA history has a team allowed 70 goals or fewer in a season. Both of those teams – Michigan State in 1998-99 and 2000-01 – enjoyed All-America seasons from their goaltenders, something that doesn’t seem too far fetched for Notre Dame senior goaltender David Brown.

“He’s playing the best hockey I’ve ever seen him play, and I’ve known him since he was 14 years old,” said O’Neill (pictured below).

Modesty prevents him from saying so, but O’Neill deserves a fair share of the credit as well. Highly recruited as a raw-but-talented member of the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, the 6-foot-4 blueliner has evolved into a steady force on both ends of the ice for Notre Dame, a transition that wasn’t always smooth.

“When I came in, I was just an offensive defenseman,” he said. “I played forward and defense until I got to Green Bay, so I didn’t know much about defense and defensive responsibility.”

The arrival of Jackson, combined with the emergence of a more balanced Irish offensive attack, has helped O’Neill assimilate defensive nuances more easily. With eight of his teammates scoring in double digits, the pressure to be everything at all times has left the Ontario-born psychology major.

“Having the balanced scoring is really helping our team,” said O’Neill. “Coach Jackson has emphasized having four solid lines, and we have that. On any given night, any of our lines can be our No. 1.”

It’s been a productive recipe so far, but no one wearing the gold helmet is celebrating just yet.

“We have a chance to do something special, but we can’t take anything for granted,” O’Neill said. “When the second half starts, we’re 0-0, and Coach has us back here on Christmas Day to get prepared.”