Riley Sheahan has never played with a freer mind in his two-plus seasons at Notre Dame.
The junior center from St. Catharine’s, Ont., arrived in South Bend a wide-eyed freshman not yet 18 years old. Considering that was his first extended time away from home, Sheahan played well as a complementary piece in netting six goals and 17 points.
The next season offered more challenges. Before it he became a first round pick of the Detroit Red Wings. During it he attempted to make the Canadian World Junior team but ended up one of its last cuts while playing through a long scoring drought.
All the experiences combined tested a young, talented player’s confidence over and over.
“There’s been a lot of distractions I think,” Sheahan said. “Like last year the draft and the world junior, getting cut from that team, and having that scoreless sort of period the first half of the season last year. I think those were all kind of things that kind of bothered me and maybe got my confidence kind of down.”
The clarity in Sheahan’s game today shows on the score sheet.
Third on the team in scoring heading into this weekend’s home-and-home series with No. 11 Western Michigan, Sheahan’s 21 points are one short of his total from last year. He has already recorded two games with multiple goals. Before this year he had never done so in college.
Last week Sheahan led No. 3 Notre Dame to a 4-3 win over then-No. 5 Minnesota with two goals, an assist and two blocked shots.
“The first couple years even though he had a man’s body he was still a bit of a boy,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “He’s finally matured and got confidence now and is playing with a lot more authority, using that body to his advantage. He’s always had great instincts and his stick skills defensively lead to scoring chances, especially like the short-handed goal. He’s just got good defensive stick skills.
“But when he’s engaged emotionally he’s dominant. It’s just a matter of him finding that hot button all the time. He’s been more consistent with it this year but when he’s engaged and focused he’s a damn good hockey player.”
Sheahan credits teammates and coaches with pulling him through the lowest moments of his career in terms of confidence. But more than that, having a clear conscience has helped unleash a player that sweat potential as a 17-year old.
“I think everything is settling down now and I can just focus on playing my game and being a hockey player,” Sheahan said. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”
Winning streak psychology
Earlier this season the Irish (13-6-3, 8-3-3-0 CCHA) made their way through a productive but unsatisfying 11-game unbeaten streak.
Despite the run Jackson felt his team had yet to click on all cylinders and that theory might have proven itself in the subsequent four-game losing streak prior to picking up a victory against Ferris State in the last game before holiday break.
Coming out of its time off, Notre Dame is riding a four-game winning run (if an exhibition game is included) and doing so in a more satisfactory fashion.
“We’ve played a lot more the way I expected us to play,” Jackson said. “But there’s still areas of our game that can definitely get better. I’d like to be better at holding a lead in the third period. I still think we play well and then something happens that changes the momentum sometimes in games and we have to eliminate those things that create that momentum whether they’re bad turnovers or penalties. We just have to become a little more mentally tougher sometimes.”
Goaltender Steven Summerhays has played his way into a platoon with Mike Johnson, who entered the season as an incumbent.
Johnson has played the lion’s share of the minutes so far but a breakdown of the numbers show Summerhays has played just about as well in his time. Johnson has an edge in goals against average at 2.59. Summerhays is at 2.69 but has a better save percentage at .894. Johnson checks in at .889.
In the win against Minnesota last week Summerhays made 31 saves.
“I think Summerhays has certainly moved himself into the mix,” Jackson said. “That’s for sure. It’s not like a starting quarterback in football. It’s different. Miami (Ohio) rotates two guys all the time. Mike will probably play this week. I’m assuming both guys will play here down the stretch. I think it helped last year.”
Both goaltenders taking starts might be atypical for Jackson, but it doesn’t matter to the players skating in front of them.
“Our whole team has a lot of confidence in both goalies,” said defenseman Stephen Johns. “We know that we can win, we can beat any team with either of them in net. I think that’s a good thing, especially for them.”