In the world of team sports, there is a general consensus that two athletes above all can carry teammates on their back and most impact an outcome. One is a supreme nine-inning pitcher. The other is a hockey goalie.
“They should call the game ‘goalie’ because of the impact that one position has on the game,” said former USA Hockey coach Dave Peterson, whose résumé included the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics.
It also might be the primary reason why No. 4 seed Notre Dame has a chance in this week’s Frozen Four versus three No. 1 seeds at Chicago’s United Center.
This Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2, Notre Dame (23-11-5) faces off with No. 1 Denver (31-7-4) in the nightcap. Two other No. 1 seeds are in the first contest between Harvard (28-8-2) and Minnesota-Duluth (27-6-7).
The presence of junior Cal Petersen, the Hockey East first-team All-Star, between the pipes for the Fighting Irish provides a greater calming effect for head coach Jeff Jackson and the entire operation.
Petersen is tied for the national lead in shutouts (six) and has recorded the second-most saves (1,065) in the country while playing 98.8 percent of the minutes this year (third in the country). His 89 consecutive starts are the fourth-longest streak in the NCAA Division I records book.
In the upsets of No. 1 seed Minnesota and No. 2 seed UMass Lowell to get to the Frozen Four, Petersen amassed 58 saves against two of the most prolific offenses in the nation (even adding an assist against the Golden Gophers).
How valuable is Petersen? Among the 60 college hockey teams, he is the only one who wears the “C” on his jersey as the team captain — and the only one at Notre Dame since the program was elevated to varsity level in 1968.
In the National Hockey League, goalies aren’t even permitted to be the captain. In college it is allowed, but they are not allowed to communicate with the officials.
“The captain in hockey seems to have a much bigger aura than any other sport,” said Jackson, a former goalie himself. “… Because of that there is more press time, more community type things. Most coaches are probably not going to want their goaltender to have to be distracted by a lot of other things outside of just playing the game.”
Thus, when Jackson named Petersen the team captain — with junior classmates Anders Bjork, Jake Evans and Luke Ripley as alternates — it might have raised surprise on the outside, but none on the inside.
“The great captains we’ve had here have been the best team builders, have been the best guys to make sure all the guys are on the same page,” said Jackson, who is now in his seventh Frozen Four and third at Notre Dame (also in 2008 and 2011). “They’re the guys that make your guys toe the line when they need to.
“They’re more involved when the coaches aren’t around. … It was more about him and his character, and the fact that he is a hard worker and he’s a humble guy, and he’s not aloof like a lot of goalies. He’s a normal kid.”
Unlike in recent seasons, Jackson said (while knocking on wood) off-the-ice issues with discipline or other matters have not been an issue. With only two seniors on the 26-man roster, he turned to the rock-like figure in Petersen.
“Cal brings it every day in practice, weight room, games, leads by example,” Jackson said. “He doesn’t have a big voice, but speaks when he needs to.”
“Right when Coach brought it up to me I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up,” Petersen said. “I knew it was going to be a challenge. I’ve kind of grown, as well as the team has. … We’re kind of moving fast and don’t have to worry about whether guys show up to practice on time, or workouts, or whatever.
“Guys are able to handle themselves, it’s been a growth throughout the season.”
That’s not to say he wasn’t a little surprised at the choice to make him the captain.
“I was making sure that it wasn’t a disaster or something like that,” Petersen said. “At least it’s worked out somewhat well up to this point. Since there hasn’t been very many [captains at goalie], I didn’t have any to gauge myself with. I just tried to be myself and lead the best way that I could, and then have help from the other captains.
“… For me it’s just important to be the hardest working guy on the ice and lead by example. Even if you can’t be the most vocal, if you’re on the bench or whatever, you need to find ways to lead differently.”
The Irish will face a monumental challenge against No. 1 Denver. The onus might be even heavier on Petersen because the Pioneers are No. 1 in team defense (1.83 goals allowed per game) and masterful at controlling the puck and tempo.
Petersen’s counterpart, Tanner Jalliet, has a better goals-against average (1.8552) than Petersen, but because the Denver defense is so strong, he’s had to record only 839 saves, or 226 less than Petersen.
The Irish did not play Denver this season, but they salvaged 1-1 and 2-2 ties on the road against the Pioneers on Jan. 1-2, 2016 — despite getting outshot 50-27 and 45-25 in those two contests. Petersen’s astounding 92 saves in that series kept Notre Dame in both contests, and a similar Herculean effort might be required again.
“They’re basically as dangerous as they come in the country and we’re approaching it like that,” Petersen said of Denver. “It would be a little naïve to say just because we battled to two ties last year it’s going to be easier this year. We played them in early January, and that hockey is a lot different than in March and April.
“We’re expecting a big challenge, but it’s something that I think we can handle.”
Entering the month of February, Notre Dame was well on the outside looking in at making the 16-team NCAA Tournament, but it has responded with its best hockey since then while jelling collectively and posting a 9-2-2 record in the last 13 contests versus premier competition.
“We were going to have to win to give ourselves a chance to make the tournament,” Petersen said. “We’ve been playing playoff hockey for a couple of months now and I think that’s been an advantage for us. We haven’t had to just ramp it up these last couple of weeks.
“It’s been a continuation and I think that’s really helped the maturity of the room. Guys have kind of grown up playing in those high-pressure situations.”
The euphoria from the wins against Minnesota and longtime nemesis UMass Lowell March 25-26 has ebbed, which Petersen considers a plus.
“Having a little bit of a break I think helped us get our feet back on the ground,” Petersen said. “Guys are kind of back to business. We kind of have the mindset we’re not just happy to be there; we’re going to make a statement, and I think we have a legitimate chance to make some noise, and hopefully come back with a championship.
“These last couple of months we’ve really put ourselves on the map, and to be rewarded with a chance at a national championship is really special. We’ve been playing really well. I think probably the biggest part is we’re getting a lot of production from depth players and don’t have to rely on one or two lines, or a couple of players each night. Guys have found their roles and ways they can help the team and playing with a lot of confidence.”
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