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
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
“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.
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.”