The scene three weeks ago seemed ideal for Notre Dame’s hockey team: St. Patrick’s Day, at Boston’s TD Garden, playing in the semifinal of the Hockey East Playoff after sweeping Providence (the national title winner two years earlier) in round two, and playing its best hockey of the year since February with a 7-1-2 record in its last 10 contests.
The Fighting Irish took an early 1-0 lead on a fluke goal … and then were promptly drubbed 5-1 by Hockey East champion UMass Lowell. The River Hawks have had Notre Dame’s number over the year and scored 25 seconds after the Irish goal, went ahead for good two minutes later and handed them their worst defeat of the season, a game not as close as the score indicated.
On the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble throughout February, Notre Dame’s overall body of work still enabled them to make the 16-team tourney as the No. 4 seed in the Northeast Region in Manchester, N.H., and a probable “one and done.”
Yet here Notre Dame is preparing for its third Frozen Four in 10 years.
This Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2, the Fighting Irish face 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).
Notre Dame’s 23-11-5 ledger is not quite as glittering as the other trio, but to make it to the Windy City the Irish came back from a 2-0 deficit on March 25 to defeat No. 1 seed Minnesota, 3-2, and a day later rallied in the third period and then won in overtime against old nemesis UMass Lowell to crash the Frozen Four party.
Fighting Irish 11th-year head coach Jeff Jackson is not anticipating the still relatively young Irish to freeze up this time with stage fright.
“I thought in Boston we were mesmerized a bit by the moment,” Jackson admitted this Monday of the St. Patrick’s Day debacle. “This is going to be an even bigger moment, but having gone through that and recovered from it, to come back and have a great weekend [March 25-26], I think that puts us in a better position to go in there and do what we can to win.”
The 10-day layoff between games can be looked at two ways. Either it squelched some momentum for Notre Dame, or it allowed them to put the jubilation of the previous weekend behind them instead of experiencing a letdown (i.e. Mississippi State women’s basketball losing in the national championship game two days after snapping UConn’s 111-game winning streak).
Jackson is banking on the latter after keeping his troops fully engaged over the past week.
“In some ways, it might be a good thing just in the fact that the elation of winning in the regional … the way it happened for us in overtime makes it all the more a celebration,” he said. “Let them enjoy it and then afterwards I just told them we have to get right back in the saddle and get going again.
“There’s more to play for. The fact that we have a bigger junior class helps, but we still have a fairly young team. … I think that additional time might have given them time to calm down from the excitement of being there.”
This will be Notre Dame’s third Frozen Four under Jackson in the past 10 years. The Irish lost in the 2008 championship game to Boston College, and fell to eventual national champ Minnesota-Duluth (4-3) in the 2011 national semifinals. Notre Dame’s three appearances on the grandest stage the past 10 seasons trail only Boston College and North Dakota, both with five apiece.
“That’s great, but to me it’s still about winning it,” said Jackson, who guided Lake Superior State to national titles in the 1992 and 1994 Frozen Four (and runner-up in 1993). “Getting there is one thing, but winning it is something different. It’s a lot more challenging. …. Having that mindset that we need to take the next step — it’s never easy.
“Everything kind of has to go your way to win it. A lot of factors, some you have control over and some you don’t. This team has shown resiliency, so we’ve shown the ability to come back, shown the ability to get on top of people early, and hopefully all those different scenarios come to play that we can respond.”
Junior Class Leads The Way
Notre Dame’s 26-man roster features only two seniors, 10 juniors, six sophomores and eight freshmen.
Three of the top four scorers are juniors, led by forward and first-team Hockey East All-Star Anders Bjork (21 goals, 31 assists, 52 points), forward Jake Evans (13-28-41), and defenseman and honorable mention Hockey East All-Star Jordan Gross (10-21-31).
Tied for second in scoring is sophomore forward Andrew Oglevie (21-20-41) — who tallied the OT game-winner versus UMass Lowell.
The best defenseman is sophomore Dennis Gilbert (0-22-22), a third-team Hockey East All-Star, while classmate Dylan Malmquist (10-13-23) and freshman Cam Morrison (11-12-23) also have supplied scoring punch, with Morrison twice scoring in the first-round upset of the No. 1-seeded Golden Gophers.
Still, the Irish will go as far as captain and first-team Hockey East All-Star Cal Petersen, another junior, will take them (look for more on Petersen tomorrow).
The Iron Man of the Notre Dame team has played 98.8 percent of the minutes this season. With four top Fighting Irish players sidelined because of injuries, the dynamics have had to change over the course of the year, and Petersen has been at the forefront of keeping the team from falling apart.
“It says a lot about the guts of our team,” Jackson said of overcoming numerous injuries. “The defense has improved a lot, it’s a young group. Obviously, we get great goaltending.”
Jackson said the development of sophomore Jack Jenkins (7-5-12) has been “a godsend” with his energy, passion and versatility at numerous positions, and he also noted the improved selflessness of the forwards, including Bjork assisting on all three goals versus UMass Lowell after scoring twice versus Minnesota.
“Against the quality of defensemen that you’re going up against, you’ve got to play like we did last weekend,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to chip pucks by their defense, you have to be patient, you have to wait to score that goal that is going to win you that game. You have to just play with poise and patience.
“Our forwards have learned to do that, our defensemen have certainly improved and we’ve got great goaltending. That’s a good combination … hopefully we’re just on the edge of going up the peak and not on the other side of it.”
The Irish did not play Denver this season, but on Jan. 1-2, 2016, they salvaged 1-1 and 2-2 ties on the road against the Pioneers despite getting outshot 50-27 and 45-25 in those two contests.
"The only reason we were in those two games was because of Cal," Jackson said.
No. 1 Denver has seven hockey national titles in its history, the most recent in 2005. It is coached by Jim Montgomery — who was Jackson’s volunteer coach in 2005-06, his first year as the Irish boss.
Furthermore, it was Montgomery’s hat trick for Maine that denied Jackson a second straight national title at Maine in the 1993 Frozen Four title game. The fourth-year Pioneers’ head coach is the all-time scoring leader in Hockey East with 301 points and played 12 years professionally before accepting his first coaching job with Jackson.
With a knowing smile, Jackson’s first comment about Denver was that they are “well coached.” They are led on offense by freshman Finland native and 2016 first-round NHL pick Henrik Borgstrom (21 goals, 21 assists, 42 points) and sophomore Troy Terry (22 goals, 19 assists, 41 points), and Jackson refers to senior Will Butcher as probably the nation’s best defenseman.
“Watching them on film, they’re the best team I’ve seen this year,” Jackson said. “I would have thought Lowell might have been the best team I saw all year a week ago — and I still believe that, it’s the best team we’ve played this year.
“But from what I’ve seen of Denver … they’ve got all the complements to their team. They cycle the puck better than any team I’ve seen this year.”
Over the past 10 days, Jackson has focused on shorter but more intense, faster-paced practices.
“You get a little concerned because we’re also trying to be competitive, [but] the last thing we need is someone get hurt in practice,” he said. “The teams we’re going to see this week are great speed teams, so it’s going to be about doing things fast.
“There’s got to be some energy early on. We have to take care of the things that help control momentum. If we take penalties or make bad turnovers … we have to take care of the puck, first and foremost. We have to play with discipline.”
Per Bjork, Notre Dame had to play “desperate hockey” throughout February just to make the NCAA Tournament, and that urgency has to carry over this week.
“If we want to win a national championship, we have to play desperate hockey,” Jackson summarized.
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