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Seniors lead way to league title, record season

Kyle Cassily | Friday, May 18, 2007

Moments after top-seeded Notre Dame lost to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Irish head coach Jeff Jackson walked into an emotion-swept locker room in the bowels of Van Andel Arena and thanked all his players for an unparalleled season – but none more than his eight seniors.

It was the close to a season in which the Irish ran a gamut of firsts and broken records: first No. 1 national ranking, first regular season league championship, first league playoff title, first Hobey Baker finalist, most wins in a season and on and on. And it all came only two years after the team – and seven of its eight seniors – suffered through a five-win season.

“[The seniors] were the reason we were allowed to turn the corner as fast as we did,” Jackson said. “Just based on how things have gone from the first year to the second year, the leadership and the commitment by those guys to each other … to be willing to do what was asked of them and to really make an effort to make this team really close.”

At no time during the season was the team closer than in the pigpile that engulfed goalie Dave Brown after the Irish won their first-ever CCHA playoff title in Joe Louis Arena on St. Patrick’s Day with a 2-1 win over Michigan.

Senior center Jason Paige’s game-winning goal with 10 minutes left in the third period transformed The Joe from a Wolverine-dominated den into a pro-Irish crowd, and the Notre Dame defense that stonewalled opponents to a national low of 1.67 goals per game held on for the win.

“It’s been a long time coming, and it’s something we’ve talked about since the time we came to Notre Dame,” Paige said after the championship win. “It’s just special to be a part of that.”

In the league championship win over Michigan, Brown made 31 saves on the nation’s top offense and smothered several Wolverines scoring chances in the mad dash of the game’s final two minutes. It was the highlight of a season in which Brown shattered Notre Dame records, won league player of the year honors and was one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

“There’s no question that [Brown] made the biggest impact on the ice,” Jackson said. “I think that there are a lot of guys that had an impact and some had more of an impact off the ice.”

Jackson attributed a great amount of that off-the-ice impact to captain T.J. Jindra, but said that the entire senior class was integral in forging a team that won a school record – and national high – 32 games.

“I didn’t anticipate the kind of camaraderie and success we had this season,” Jackson said, giving full credit to the seniors.

The defense – anchored by seniors Wes O’Neill, Noah Babin and Tom Sawatske – limited the Michigan offense to seven goals in three games during a season in which the Wolverines averaged more than four goals per game. The Irish dragged Boston College through the mud in a 7-1 October blowout before they posted nine shutout wins on the season – a drastic change from the four, five or six-goal losses that plagued the team throughout recent history.

“I have to say that the senior defensemen improved their willingness to take a hit to make a play,” Jackson said. “Some of that is physical maturity and some of that is just willingness to pay the price. That group, as a whole, I wouldn’t have said that a year ago at this time.”

On the offensive side of the puck, Paige and Jindra were joined by seniors Josh Sciba and Michael Bartlett. Sciba led the Irish in goals a season ago but missed more than a month of the season with a broken wrist – and still added eight goals for 18 points. Bartlett teamed up with Paige and Jindra to form a line that was tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top line throughout the middle of the season, which they notably accomplished in a January series against No. 8 Miami for a win and a tie.

“I think the thing we will notice early on next year with what we will be missing is their grit,” Jackson said of his senior forwards.

Whether it was their ability to stop pucks, bang bodies in the defensive zone and engineer breakouts or wear down the other team’s best line while netting a few goals of their own, the eight Irish seniors who will graduate Sunday will leave a lasting reminder of their impact on the program now and for years to come – the two championship banners that hang from the Joyce Center rafters.