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Hockey: Young team closes Joyce Center with Frozen run

Chris Allen | Friday, May 20, 2011

In the history of Notre Dame’s 43-year tenure at the Joyce Center, the 2010-11 season will go down as the twist ending no one saw coming.

With a roster featuring 12 freshmen and only 13 returning players coming off a disappointing 2009-10 campaign, Irish coach Jeff Jackson’s team posted a 25-14-5 record, finished second in the CCHA and advanced through the NCAA Northeast regional to make the program’s second Frozen Four appearance before bowing out to eventual champion Minnesota-Duluth.

The final season at the only arena Notre Dame varsity hockey has ever known represented a turnaround not even Jackson could predict.

“We kind of went into the season with open eyes. We knew we were going to be young, but we didn’t know what kind of an impact those young players would have on our team,” Jackson said. “Certainly we were hoping to have a good team, but I don’t know we were thinking we were going to the Frozen Four this year with the youth that we had.”

Before the Irish could begin to bounce back from a 13-17-8 record in 2009-10, a number of events occurred in the offseason to give the roster its youthful makeup.

Following the graduation of seven seniors, junior all-American defenseman Ian Cole left for the St. Louis Blues of the NHL.

Freshman right wing Kyle Palmieri and Notre Dame signee and defenseman Jarred Tinordi soon followed suit with the Anaheim Ducks and Montreal Canadiens, respectively.

The high turnover of players allowed for an influx of 12 signees to join the team, among them blue-chip recruits in defenseman Stephen Johns, left wing Anders Lee, center T.J. Tynan and goalkeeper Steven Summerhays. The class began training with Notre Dame in the summer, which Jackson said was key to their development.

“The summer bridge program definitely helped our guys in a couple areas,” he said. “They got an idea of what they would have to do academically and then the other part of it is they got to spend a lot of time with their future teammates.”

Though the dozen newcomers brought a fresh look to the Joyce Center ice, the roster also featured four seniors, three of whom remained from the 2007-08 team that produced the program’s first Frozen Four run and title game appearance.

Though left wing Calle Ridderwall, right wing Ryan Guentzel and center Ben Ryan were all program veterans, defenseman Joe Lavin was chosen as the team captain despite being with the program less than a year after transferring from Providence last December.

Jackson said the choice spoke to Lavin’s leadership ability on and off the ice.

“Lavin as a captain may have been the biggest surprise in terms of people’s expectations of the leadership. Joe came in halfway through his junior year and gained a lot of respect right away,” he said. “He’s an adult, and he does things the right way on the ice, off the ice and in the classroom.”

The season started with the Irish rattling off five wins in their first six games, highlighted by a 2-1 home defeat of then-No. 1 Boston College in which Ridderwall lit the lamp twice and sophomore netminder Mike Johnson stopped all but one of Boston College’s 29 shots.

Jackson said the victory gave the young team confidence moving into the bulk of the CCHA schedule.

“At the time I think they thought it was a huge upset, and at the time maybe it was,” he said. “I think it was a real boost to their confidence in terms of knowing they could play with a top team in the country. There were points of our season that made them more confident, and also some setbacks that made them realize that they would have to get better.”

The emergence of Lee and Tynan as national freshman scoring leaders helped the Irish move into first-place in the CCHA standings heading into a 17-day Christmas break, positioning the unlikely leaders as CCHA favorites. The Irish wrestled with Miami (OH) and Michigan on a week-by week basis until the last night of the season, when the Irish found themselves one point ahead of Michigan with only a Saturday night game against Western Michigan remaining on the slate for the CCHA title.

Two first-period goals from the Broncos put the Irish in a 2-0 hole they would not recover from, and Michigan’s 5-0 victory on the same night handed the Irish a second-place finish.

The loss, coupled with two decisive losses in the CCHA tournament, meant the senior leadership needed to right the team’s mindset heading into the NCAA tournament.

“I think they realized that they were too amped up at times,” Jackson said. “We would take unnecessary penalties and put ourselves behind the eight-ball in big games. I think that happened on the last night of the season and in Detroit against Miami.”

The team wasted no time responding to the series of defeats, emerging from the NCAA Northeast regional as a No. 3 seed with wins over Merrimack and New Hampshire, two teams playing less than an hour from their respective campuses. In the regional final, the Irish played arguably their most complete game of the season, highlighted by a Regional MVP performance in goal from Johnson, who made 37 saves.

“I thought we refocused right away,” Jackson said. “The game against New Hampshire was probably our best game of the season in terms of overall play, with the puck and without the puck. “

The strong play from the regional brought Notre Dame to the Frozen Four in Saint Paul, Minn., to face off with another team playing in its own backyard — Minnesota-Duluth. Freshman left wing Jeff Costello got the Irish on the board in the game’s opening minute, but three power-play goals and an even-strength goal gave the eventual NCAA champion Bulldogs an insurmountable lead over Notre Dame, who fell 4-3.

Jackson said the game ultimately exposed a weakness in the Irish special teams.

“We took too many penalties early in the game,” he said. “That played into one of our most inconsistent parts of our game, our special teams, which were an issue all season. I think we played our hand poorly in that game by taking penalties.”

Though they fell just short of a national title, the final season at the Joyce Center saw plenty of positives for the future of Irish hockey at the newly constructed Compton Family Center.

The campaign featured the emergence of two national standouts, Tynan and Lee, who finished first and second, respectively, in scoring among all freshmen nationally. Tynan, selected by many media outlets as the national freshman of the year in college hockey, came to South Bend instead of spending a year in junior hockey after the late departures of Tinordi and Palmieri — a fact that made his 54-point campaign even more remarkable.

“T.J. is a competitor,” Jackson said. “He’d make plays in front of the net, but he’d also make plays before he’d get to the net front. I think he’s a playmaker, and he’s probably more of a skilled, dynamic type of player.”

Lee, who chose hockey over football after being recruited by a number of colleges to play quarterback, leveraged his size and strength to become a physical presence on the wing and led the Irish with 24 goals.

“Anders is dominant from a physical perspective,” Jackson said. “He gets deep in the offensive zone. He has a great release, great shot and is always in the crease area. But I think next year, more than just Tynan and Lee, I think all of the players in that class can increase their numbers and be key for us.”

The scoring duo of Tynan and Lee may headline the freshman class, but they are just a part of the young nucleus of the team that will open up one of the premier hockey facilities in the country in October 2011 in style — with the raising of a Frozen Four banner.

What a way to close the book.