Jan. 22, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – So much of Hockey East has been brand new to Notre Dame as it has worked its way through the first two year cycle of seeing opponents, arenas and road cities for the first time. This weekend’s first-time excursion to Northeastern’s venerable Matthews Arena, the nation’s oldest indoor ice arena, will have a strange faint feel of home.
The building, which opened in 1910, hosted every President from Theodore Roosevelt through John F. Kennedy. Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis fought there. Charles Lindbergh attended events there. Sonja Heine skated on the same rink that the Irish will play on Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m.
So how will a facility that has not welcomed the Irish through its doors since 2001 seem familiar? When designing the Compton Family Ice Arena, Maynard, Massachusetts native and Notre Dame associate director of athletics Tom Nevala borrowed from the glorious old hockey barn on St. Botolph Street.
The overhanging balconies which afford Notre Dame fans tremendous views of home games are modeled after the ones which do likewise for Northeastern’s home crowds. Although a mere coincidence, the two arenas’ main entrances are comparably offset to one end of the ice and not in the center as one might expect.
Another similarity, both the Irish (10-11-3, 5-2-3 Hockey East) and Huskies (8-11-4, 4-7-2 HE) are coming into this weekend’s play off of strong 1-0-1 weekends. Notre Dame claimed a win and a tie from a weekend home-and-home series with UConn while the Huntington Hounds picked up three out of four points from No. 10 Vermont on the road in Burlington. Northeastern is 5-1-3 in its last nine games overall and take a good head of steam into this weekend’s matchup.
“They got off to a tough start, probably because expectations were real high,” Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said in speculation on causes for Northeastern’s recent resurgence. “You have to get the guys back into the right mindset and it appears that they have. The biggest thing has been that their goaltender has been playing more like he did last year. That’s a big part of it because, preseason, he was considered one of the top goalies in the country. They’ve got their offensive game together. They’re good on the power play. They’re a good offensive team.”
The head of steam that the Irish ride into this weekend’s game in Boston is led by defenseman Robbie Russo, this week’s NCAA national first star of the week and Hockey East’s player of the week. Russo had five points last weekend against UConn, including the nation’s only hat trick so far this year for a defenseman. Russo’s three goals in Sunday’s 6-1 victory over UConn marked the first hat trick by a Notre Dame blue liner since 1988.
Just as importantly, the senior has done this while maintaining his status as a solid two-way player. On a team that has only outscored its opponents by five goals this season, Russo boasts a plus-14 rating, a mark that ties for seventh in Hockey East.
“He’s finally playing up to his potential,” Jackson said of Russo. “Sometimes it takes kids a little longer. It’s about taking the responsibility of his ability level. He’s always had the offensive ability but never had the assertiveness to go with it. He hasn’t given up defensively to do more offensively, which is the real key. We couldn’t afford to have that happen with three freshman defensemen playing every weekend. He’s done a good job in helping the guys back there too.”
Also helping the Irish mount their current run have been Mario Lucia and Jordan Gross. Both players take eight-game point scoring streaks into this weekend, matching the longest run by a Notre Dame skater since Ryan Thang posted a run of 11 straight games with a point in 2007. With this hot stretch, Lucia has built his seasonal count to 15 goals, just one shy of the Hockey East lead. Gross, meanwhile, leads all freshman defensemen in the nation with his 16 points on the year.
Separated by just three points in the middle of the Hockey east standings, the games between the Irish and Huskies this weekend will have significant implications as the league playoff picture begins to cement itself. A year ago, Northeastern claimed two of the three meetings between the sides, all coming at Notre Dame. The Irish hope the building which helped inspire their home ice will provide better results this weekend.