This weekend, the NMU hockey team faces the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the No. 13 team in the nation, and having already faced the No. 8 Michigan Wolverines and the No. 11 Michigan State Spartans in consecutive weeks, the Irish will be yet another challenging CCHA team to get by.
“This is the best team we’ve played all year — clearly,” head coach Walt Kyle said.
It doesn’t help that the Irish were swept by CCHA-leader Miami at home last weekend, marking the first time in nearly three years that the Irish were swept at home in CCHA play.
When asked whether the Irish would come in looking for redemption, coach Kyle was quick with an answer.
“Absolutely, and we should be too,” he responded.
The ‘Cats are coming off a weekend where they tied MSU 2-2 Friday night, then lost in a shootout; on Saturday, the Wildcats fell 2-0, with the second MSU goal coming on an empty net.
“We were one shot away from winning on Friday, and one shot away from tying that game on Saturday,” Kyle said. “We gave up three goals in two games (taking away the empty-net goal Saturday night), which is quite honestly, pretty good defensive hockey.”
Notre Dame will test that solid NMU defense this weekend with a roster full of veteran returners.
Notre Dame (2-3-0, 0-2-0-0 CCHA) returns 18 letterwinners from the 2007-08 team that made it to the NCAA Frozen Four National Championship game, including its senior leading scorer and pre-season all-conference honoree, forward Erik Condra. Condra has six points this season, coming off two goals and four assists. In addition, eight players on the Irish roster are NHL draftees.
Last season, NMU (2-3-1, 1-2-1-0 CCHA) split with Notre Dame and then defeated the Irish in the third-place game of the CCHA Championships at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. NMU junior forward Ray Kaunisto said the team realizes, from last year, just how much talent Notre Dame brings to the Berry Events Center this weekend.
“(Junior center Kevin) Deeth, Condra, (junior defenseman Kyle) Lawson, they’re all the top prospects from juniors and they’re in their third, fourth year. They’re all good,” Kaunisto said. “It’s a real good team and they’ve got a real good coach. It’s going to be tough for us.”
All told, Notre Dame had five players on the all-conference preseason team, including Lawson and Condra on the first team, junior forward Ryan Thang and sophomore defenseman Ian Cole on the second as well as senior goaltender Jordan Pearce at honorable mention.
From LSSU to NMU
NMU volunteer coach Joe Shawhan knows — perhaps more than any coach on the Wildcat staff — what sort of team Notre Dame will bring to the BEC ice.
Shawhan played under and coached with current Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson when the two were still at Lake Superior State University, and both were members of the Lakers hockey program during LSSU’s winningest decade, which included three national championships.
“What I know about the game, primarily my philosophies and what I’ve learned, I’ve developed from his mentoring,” Shawhan said about Jackson.
Yet, for this weekend, Shawhan couldn’t anticipate much about how Jackson will coach.
“Jeff’s innovative and he changes all the time. Week to week, opponent to opponent, he dissects the opposition and he’ll put a gameplan in according to that,” Shawhan said. “You can’t get tendencies on what he’ll do week to week. He’ll come in with something new.”
Shawhan came to NMU three months ago, and already is making an impact. Though he works with every player on the team, Shawhan, a former goalie with LSSU, has helped NMU goaltenders Brian Stewart, Derek Janzen and Devan Hartigan. Kyle said, in the past, NMU didn’t have a coach on staff that could work with goaltenders specifically.
“Joe likes to coach. I can tell he enjoys coaching,” Kyle said. “He spends time after practice with the guys and working with the guys. And to me, that’s a big tell on how hungry a young coach is. I think he’s done a real good job.”
And Shawhan isn’t your run of the mill volunteer coach.
“It’s not like just bringing in your normal volunteer assistant,” Kyle said. “It’s bringing in a guy that’s done every aspect of that job (as a full-time assistant), so he can add opinions in everything you do.”
This weekend, when Shawhan looks across the ice, he’ll see his former head coach, who he’s faced in the past, but never as an NMU Wildcat.
And though Jackson will probably appear calm for most of the weekend’s games, Shawhan said there’s more to the Notre Dame head coach than meets the eye.
“He comes across being very calm, above the water,” Shawhan said. “But he’s paddling like hell underneath.”
Jackson took the helm at Notre Dame in the 2005-06 season, and since then has brought the Fighting Irish to the top of the CCHA standings, specifically in postseason play.
“There’s a lot of similarities between Walt and Jeff and I see those similarities having been around both of them,” Shawhan said. “I can see why both teams at the end of the year have success.”
Kyle has led the Wildcats to the CCHA Championships five of six years, while Jackson took the Irish to the National Championship game last season.
And as Shawhan left for the ice, and was advised to enjoy practice, he responded quickly:
“I always do.”
Hard at Work
Kyle cited Kaunisto and junior forward Billy Smith as players he’s been impressed with thus far. Kaunisto, he said was the most improved player from a year ago, while he identified Smith as the hardest working.
Kaunisto has four points on the season and has registered a zero plus/minus rating.
“Kaunisto’s doing all the little things that it takes to have success,” Kyle said. “He’s been a good player. Disregarding the two goals and two assists he has, he’s still been an impact player in the games he’s played.”
Kaunisto said it was hard work in the offseason that’s helped him to improve this season. He traveled to Las Vegas to workout with a friend who was playing on a team there.
“I got a lot stronger, and more confident coming in as an upperclassmen,” he said. “And I’ve just been working hard.”
Smith, one of the four players on NMU’s primary penalty kill team, has one assist on the season, but the NMU penalty has succeeded in killing 29 of 32 opponent powerplays.
Smith’s head coach said the junior forward isn’t the prototypical star on a hockey team, but that Smith does exactly what is asked of him.
“There’s a guy that’s played very well, and goes without notice because he doesn’t produce much offensively,” Kyle said. “But he does his job well and works his butt off.”
There’s a reason for that, according to Smith.
“I’ve just got to work hard so Walt doesn’t yell at me,” he said. “But honestly, obviously I want to become a better player. And if I don’t come to practice and work hard, I’m cheating myself.”
Kyle describes Smith in practice as “a dog” and said he hadn’t coached many guys with Smith’s work ethic.
“I’ve coached hard workers, and he’s at a different level,” Kyle said. “He’s a real hard worker.”