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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

HOCKEY:Turning the Paige

Jason Paige sets an example on and off the ice - but most definitely leads first with his body on it.

The physical forward was named Irish hockey assistant captain at the beginning of this season by Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson, and for good reason.

"He's one of the guys that walks the talk," Jackson said. "He's probably one of the more vocal guys on the team, but for a guy to be vocal you better be able to back it up with how you play and how you work in practice and work in the weight room, and he does that."

It was in the weight room prior to the start of on-ice workouts that Jackson first noticed the leadership skills present in Paige, and the first-year coach knew he had found a player with solid potential. This is Paige's second year as an assistant captain, being chosen for the honor last season along with another current assistant captain, Mike Walsh.

"There's a lot of ups and downs in the season," Paige said. "It's easy to get away from what Coach is asking us to do, and I take pride in trying to keep the team motivated every game."

Paige had an explosive freshman season, scoring 10 goals and assisting on six more, but since has evolved into a much more defensive player on the ice. The center is a penalty kill specialist, as well as being proficient at winning faceoffs.

When those two talents are combined, Jackson looks nowhere else to find the answer to his problems.

"That is the most critical time on penalty kill, right off the faceoff, because you don't have a lot of chance to pressure off the faceoff if you lose it," Jackson said. "So winning the faceoff draws is very important to the success of penalty killing and that's kind of where [Paige] specializes."

In his freshman season, Paige teamed up with Michael Bartlett and present captain T.J. Jindra to become the best Notre Dame penalty kill unit in the school's history. The trio allowed only 22 power play goals on 174 chances, a success rate of 87.6 percent.

Paige has been instrumental on not only penalty kill draws, but on the unit as a whole this season. He has helped the special teams squad to recover from an early season swoon and become more efficient at dealing with a man down. The Irish penalty kill currently boasts a .754 success rate, allowing 15 goals in 61 chances.

"It's easy to be hesitant, but it's one of the things were trying to focus on, not giving guys time to set up with the puck and stuff like that," Paige said. "The more aggressive we can be, the better off we will be. We've been doing that of late and its been helping."

Jackson has placed Paige and his linemates - Bartlett and freshman Garrett Regan - into a unique role within this Irish lineup. He likes to match the checking line with the opponent's top offensive line in an attempt to neutralize the opposition's scoring capabilities.

But at the same time Jackson hopes that the threesome can contribute on the offensive side of the puck as well. He notes that with Regan's speed and the "gritty" play of Paige and Bartlett the offensive option is always open.

"He puts the weight on the shoulders of me and my linemates to shut those guys down," Paige said of his line's responsibility. "That's a big part of it right there, doing those things game in and game out to help the team win."

The resurgent Irish have been on the upswing after sweeping Bowling Green at home last weekend in back-to-back games, 9-4 and 4-2.

A lot of the early season struggles did not come from a lack of solid play by the Irish, but from the fact that they have played three top-10 teams in Michigan, Colorado College and Denver.

"I think this year more than last year, we have more of a direction as far as the team," Paige said. "We have goals laid out that each game we want to accomplish."

One of those goals set by Jackson and his staff is to net the first goal in every game. Paige believes that these goals will help the Irish to keep motivated through the long college hockey season.

And they will need plenty of motivation this weekend as they take on yet another nationally ranked team in No. 14 Miami of Ohio. But with Paige knocking opponents into the sheet and his teammates picking up those loose pucks, the Irish feel unstoppable.

"We want to be the best; we have to beat the best in order to be on top," Paige said.