Notre Dame’s up-and-down start this season, is similar to last season’s. And while it’s comforting to know last year’s 3-3-1 start led to a NCAA Championship game appearance in April, the Irish knew they had their work cut out for them after opening 4-4-1 this year.
“We haven’t really had a lot of continuity yet in our lines which this late into the first half you hope to have that continuity,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “I think the same thing applies to our power-play unit. And I think that that’ll get solidified it’s just a matter of when that happens.”
Like last year, things seem to be taking shape. Notre Dame has now won its last four games, improving to 8-4-1, and sits in an enviable spot in the Pairwise, seventh.
The only difference between this year and last are the circumstances. Last year’s struggles sprouted mostly from injuries, while this year’s came from something much different — a lack of scoring.
Notre Dame lost its top three scorers in the offseason in Jake Evans, Andrew Oglevie and Jordan Gross, who had scored 46, 39 and 30 points, respectively. That left a freshman class of nine and 15 underclassmen total to take their place.
“With the amount of top scorers that we lost last year I knew that there was going to be a lot of guys who were going to have to step up this year,” senior Bobby Nardella said. “Not really focusing on scoring as much as just new roles to produce offensively for a lot of guys.”
As an offensive defenseman, Nardella was expected to take the place of Gross as the team’s highest-scoring bluelinder. He has, with 14 points of his own. The defender has also improved and now plays in important late-game situations. The senior, along with Cal Burke, Dylan Malmquist and Cam Morrison were some of the players expected to replace the lost scoring.
“Cal Burke has done a really good job this year and going along with Joe Wegwerth and Dylan Malmquist,” Nardella said. “Cam Morrison has also had some good games. We’ve still a little bit of a question mark I guess, kind of waiting for some of the younger guys to blossom into new roles but those guys have done pretty well with scoring so far.”
Burke has a team-high eight goals and 15 points. Joe Wegwerth, who missed part of last season with injuries and suffered another injury recently, has seven goals and 11 points.
“He’s always been more of a depth guy on a grind-type line and this year he’s contributed more,“ Jackson said. “His game has gone in a really positive direction this year. He’s playing better in his own end, he’s doing better without the puck and as a result he’s getting more opportunities without the puck and he’s taking advantage of a number` of those opportunities. He’s been a pleasant surprise.”
The top four scorers have combined for 51 points. But Notre Dame’s scoring still isn’t where the team wants it to be. They have had some offensive breakout games but were limited to two goals or less in five of seven November games.
“We’re still trying to work on our offensive side of the game and score more goals. … We know that we can do it, we’re just trying to find a way to be consistent with it,” Nardella said.
Not being able to score more than two goals is OK for now, as the Fighting Irish do have something they’re certain of — goaltending. Cale Morris, one of the best goaltenders in the country, has a .935 save percentage.
“That’s made a world of difference as far as us having the confidence that we’re going to get good goaltending behind us,” Jackson said. “Any time you have a veteran guy who has already proven himself, it makes it a lot easier. Especially breaking in three young defensemen.”
Morris’ play has given the Fighting Irish some more time to find their scoring and sort out their lines. Notre Dame is on a four-game winning streak with victories over Michigan, Michigan State and Northern Michigan and is tied for first in the league.
“I think we can only get better,” Jackson said. “Once we get that continuity in place and we can do some things a little bit more offensively and play to our identity, that’s only going to bode well for us as we move forward.”