Jeff Jackson learned a harsh lesson on coaching through pain even as the Notre Dame hockey team captured the league tournament championship.
Early last week Jackson slipped on ice in front of his home and tumbled down the front steps, resulting in a couple broken ribs. He met with the media midweek and couldn’t sit comfortably. During the celebration after winning CCHA title game he needed help hoisting the Mason Cup.
Later on Jackson admitted the pain was significant enough to call for medication. Now heading into the opening round of the NCAA tournament at 1:30 p.m. Saturday against St. Cloud State in Toledo, Jackson is recovering.
“I’m actually doing a little better right now,” he said. “I’m still feeling a lot of pain in my side but it’s not nearly as bad as it was.”
Broken ribs didn’t stop Jackson from preparing his team to win last weekend. It won’t stop the Irish this weekend either.
Top-seeded Notre Dame (25-12-3) is preparing for its fifth NCAA tournament in the last eight years. Two seasons ago the Irish made a run to the national semifinals before falling to Minnesota-Duluth, the eventual national champions.
Last season they tumbled down the CCHA standings and out of consideration for the postseason. This time around some of their best hockey is coming at the right time.
Notre Dame has yet to lose in March (6-0-0) and is 9-2-3 since the beginning of February, which comes on the heels of going 2-6-0 to start the second half of the season.
Upperclassmen know from their run to the Frozen Four two years ago what this weekend will entail.
“Hopefully we can rely on our depth over their depth,” said defenseman Stephen Johns. “We understand it’s gonna be a battle. They’re playing like it’s their last game of the season and so will we. It’s gonna be fun. It’s playoff hockey and it’s always fun.”
St. Cloud State (23-15-1) enters the tournament as a No. 4 seed after landing at the top of the WCHA regular season standings before a semifinal defeat to Wisconsin in the tournament.
Jackson compared the Huskies to Northern Michigan but with more overall offensive weapons. Forward Drew LeBlanc ranks eighth nationally in points per game (1.28) and first in assists per game (.95). He has 13 goals and 37 assists total.
“We have to play our game against him,” Jackson said. “It’s not like we’re gonna do anything special to play against their top line. The line that Michigan had, both their top lines are pretty good lines too. When we control the puck and maintain possession of the puck and respect possession of the puck then everything else is easier against the other team.”
Voran remains day-to-day
Winger Mike Voran missed both games in Detroit last weekend with an ankle injury suffered the previous week against Bowling Green. He is skating in practice, a positive sign, Jackson said.
“It’ll probably be a decision if we make a change, first of all,” Jackson said. “Then I need to know that Mike’s 100 percent available. But if he can penalty kill for us and play some important minutes then he’s a player that’s had a pretty good year for us so I’m not gonna overlook that.”
Voran has four goals and seven assists this season while playing as a top penalty killer.
Johns eyes potential homecoming
Two more wins and Johns could be overloaded with ticket requests.
The junior defenseman grew up about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, host of the Frozen Four this year. Notre Dame needs to beat St. Cloud State on Saturday then get past either No. 2 seed Miami or No. 3 seed Minnesota State to clinch a spot.
Johns has found it difficult to not look ahead.
“It’s kinda hard not to,” Johns said. “Every day someone else is texting me saying, ‘I’ve got tickets in Pittsburgh, I’d better see you there.’ I understand as much as any guy on this team that we have a lot of work to do before that can happen. Now our main focus is St. Cloud. I would want nothing more than to play in Pittsburgh in a few weeks. We’re gonna give it our all.”