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November 2, 2012

Costello sharpens a physical edge

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Jeff Costello has grown too familiar the last couple seasons with rest and rehabilitation.

Last season Costello missed 12 games thanks to a variety of maladies as Notre Dame slipped down the Central Collegiate Hockey Association standings and missed the NCAA tournament. More often than not it seemed Costello was either hurt or recovering without much in between.

Again this season Costello has missed time, sitting out the Ice Breaker Tournament before making a return for the Minnesota-Duluth series a couple weekends ago.

“I think the biggest frustration is when you initially come back and you’re not where you know you can be,” Costello said. “That’s the most frustrating thing. You’ve just got to constantly remind yourself that it’s a day at a time, it’s a game at a time, it’s a shift at a time during games.”

Costello had sufficient practice to apply that against Duluth, scoring a goal. It remains his only point of the season as No. 8 Notre Dame preps to host No. 11 Western Michigan this weekend.

While the junior from Milwaukee forges ahead healthy, there is a sense that the next bump or bruise is right around the corner.

That’s life when you play every shift with a physical edge reserved for only the most rugged college hockey players. No matter the toll it takes on his body, Costello knows no other way to approach the game.

Nor would he, teammates or coaches change anything.

“Once you get back you never want to change the way you play,” said defenseman Stephen Johns, no stranger to leveling big hits himself. “That’s definitely one thing that you usually focus on when you’re getting back from an injury.”

There is a simple truth in what Costello brings to the team when he mixes it up: Notre Dame needs it and plays better when he is firing on all cylinders.

During a particularly bleak stretch of February last season the Irish lost five straight games. Costello played in none of them. In his first game back - a 2-0 win over Michigan State - Costello scored a goal. Notre Dame would win two of its next three before bowing out of the league playoffs with two straight losses to Michigan.

Back then it became apparent just how much Costello meant to the lineup, no matter his impact on the actual box score.

“He creates energy for us,” said linemate Mike Voran. “He throws the body around just as much, if not more, as any guy on our team. When I see him get going it fires me up.”

Head coach Jeff Jackson hits the recruiting trail in search of players willing to give their body up for a greater good. Jackson found it in Costello and has since nurtured that aggression in both he and Johns, another overt physical force.

Jackson focused on finding a comfortable balance between physical play and, well, stupidity.

“(Costello) makes us a much better team,” Jackson said. “He makes us a more confident team. He and Johns are two key guys for us as far as keeping everybody honest. As long as they keep it clean, they don’t take unnecessary penalties, it’s great.

“Sometimes there’s gonna be an occasional penalty out of aggression, and I’ll accept that just by the nature of the way they play, but they make a big difference for us.”

As long as he’s in the lineup, Costello plans to play the only way he’s ever known. That’s good news for his team, bad for opponents.

When one of your teammates, a hulking defenseman and former second round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, thinks you bring the pain there must be some truth to it somewhere down the line.

“Jeff is one of the most physical guys I’ve ever played with,” Johns said. “It’s not fun taking a hit from him in practice and I know it’s not fun to take it from him during the game.”


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