The 2017 Frozen Four, which begins April 6 in Chicago, looks like just as it had been drawn up when the 16-team NCAA Tournament commenced this past weekend:
• No. 1 seed Denver (No. 1-ranked in USCHO), 31-7-4 for a .786 winning percentage.
• No. 1 seed Harvard (No. 2 in USCHO), 28-8-2, for a .763 winning percentage.
• No. 1-seed Minnesota-Duluth (No. 3 in USCHO), 27-6-7, also a .763 winning percentage.
… And finally there is the gate crasher — little ‘ol No. 4 and final seed Notre Dame from the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., with its 23-11-5 ledger — a more modest .654 winning percentage — and ranked outside the top 10.
Remarkably, the Fighting Irish truly lived to fight another day with identical 3-2 upsets of No. 5-ranked Minnesota on Saturday and No. 4- ranked Hockey East rival/nemesis UMass Lowell, both times rallying from deficits in the final period, and defeating the latter in overtime.
At the start of February, just securing a bid to the NCAA Tournament appeared to be a stretch for the mostly inconsistent Fighting Irish, who were 14-9-3 and trailing Vermont at home 4-2 with 3:11 remaining in the contest.
Two late goals at the end of regulation secured the tie, and from there head coach Jeff Jackson’s icers began reaching peak form, finishing in a second-place tie in its final season in 12-team Hockey East (it will be part of the seven-team Big Ten hereafter).
Yet, it never was able to quite seize the moments when presented to them.
With a chance to win the regular season crown on the final day, Notre Dame was rolled 4-1 at Boston U.
Then in the Hockey East semifinal versus UMass Lowell, the Irish were administered their worst defeat of the season, 5-1 — on St. Patrick’s Day, no less. The performance was so dismal that Jackson broke protocol for the first time this season by not even reviewing the film clips with the squad so as not to demoralize them, especially star junior goaltender Cal Petersen.
“That was a bit of a wake-up call for us,” said junior forward Anders Bjork, one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, the Heisman of college hockey, and named the outstanding player in the Northeast Regional. “They took it to us. We realized how hard we have to come out each game, and how hard everyone needs to compete. …Our season was on the line so we played desperate. We were dialed in. Every shift we took we were going to make count.”
“I had the feeling that we were ready, the guys were dialed in and would do what they needed to do to be successful,” said Jackson on Sunday. “Lowell is the best team that we’ve played this year, [but] playing them two weeks ago helped us tonight.”
Rally Sons Of Notre Dame
On Saturday, the Golden Gophers scored in the opening minutes in each of the first two periods for a 2-0 lead.
The game changed at 14:39 of the second period when sophomore Andrew Oglevie took a long pass from the junior Petersen — a rare assist from a goalie — and tallied on a wrist shot off the cross bar for his team high 20th goal of the season. Maybe a glint of magic, combined with sweat and toil, remained.
Just 56 seconds later, Bjork also scored his 20th goal of the year on assists from Cam Morrison and Jake Evans. The game winner came in the third and final period (8:42 mark) from Bjork on assists from Evans and Jordan Gross.
The 3-2 triumph was the third time this season the Irish rallied from two goals down to win (Dec. 10 vs. Boston College and at Maine on Feb. 11).
On Sunday against UMass Lowell, Notre Dame drew first blood this time when Bjork fed Morrison, who scored off his own rebound, for a 1-0 lead before the River Hawks tied it at the end of the first period.
In the second period, the Irish killed off three power play opportunities by Lowell, but fell behind 2-1 at 11:38 of the third period with the season hanging in the balance. At the 14:43 mark — or about five minutes left in the season — the Bjork-to-Morrison tandem struck again to knot the game and send it into overtime.
Suddenly, the favorites start feeling game pressure and getting tight, whereas the underdogs were loose and inspired, playing with house money. It was a role reversal for Notre Dame from recent years.
It took only 2:44 in the extra session for the Irish to claim victory when Oglevie blasted in from about five feet a perfect centering pass from Bjork — he assisted on all three goals — for the conquest.
The underdog role has been kind to Jackson and Co. Notre Dame is now 3-1 in NCAA Regional Finals and the Irish are 5-2 as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Miracle On Ice, Act II?
In 2005-06, the year before Jackson’s arrival, Notre Dame had the worst record in college hockey (5-27-6) and likely the most awful, behind-the-times facilities in the sport while housed like a club team (which it used to be) in the Joyce Center.
Two years later under Jackson — who led Lake Superior State to national titles in 1992 and 1994 — the Fighting Irish had the best record in all of collegiate hockey (32-7-3) and won their first ever NCAA Tournament game before getting upset as the No. 1 seed in round two.
The following season, Notre Dame advanced to its First Frozen Four, losing in the championship to Boston College. It was Notre Dame’s version of “Miracle On Ice." with Jackson's Midas touch demonstrating his first three years how it can still compensate for having maybe the most laughable facilities in the nation.
After another Frozen Four berth in 2011, the sparkling new Compton Family Ice Arena — The House That Jackson Built — opened in October 2011… and guess what? Since 2011, Notre Dame had failed to win an NCAA Tournament game, or even be invited in 2012 and 2015.
Virtually every esteemed Notre Dame head coach has hit a point in his or her career where perhaps the thought was a plateau had been reached and the best days were behind them, including basketball coaches Muffet McGraw (only four NCAA Tournament wins in the five years from 2005-09) or Mike Brey (two tourney wins in the 10 years from 2004-13).
Jackson experienced such a drought from 2011-16.
This weekend, Notre Dame’s fire on ice returned … and possibly an Act II of its Miracle of Ice can continue April 6 versus No. 1 Denver, or even beyond.
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