Hockey: In final CCHA season, ND claims conference crown
Isaac Lorton | Wednesday, May 15, 2013
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times and then it got better for Notre Dame.
Or as Irish coach Jeff Jackson said, Notre Dame (25-13-3, 17-8-3 CCHA) saw the entire spectrum of winning and losing.
“It was a tale of three seasons,” Jackson said. “We had a great first half, a tough middle coming back from winter break and a great finish. Of course it was a disappointing way to go out before we reached the Frozen Four again, but it was great to win the CCHA. I think we played our best hockey of the season going into the NCAA tournament. So it was nice to finish up stronger.”
Notre Dame began the season 14-4 and went into winter break as the No. 3 team in the country. After the break, the Irish went 2-6 in January. Jackson said the strength and leadership of the senior class held the team together through the times of adversity, both during the trying January stretch and through the four years overall.
“[The seniors] all had different stories,” Jackson said. “A few guys left for pro hockey, but they all in their own way found a way to overcome adversity over their four years here. [Defenseman Sam] Calabrese broke his leg freshman year and then came back. [Goalie Mike] Johnson lost his starting position after leading a team to the Frozen Four [as a sophomore]. [Right wing Kevin] Nugent was in and out of the lineup. They overcame their adversity and stayed positive. They all helped lead our team. Two of them weren’t in the lineup every night, but they made sure everyone was doing the right thing at all times.”
Nugent was the one who put a stop to the five-game losing streak Jan. 26 and sparked the Irish to a 5-2 win over Ferris State. With the game locked at 2-2, Nugent threw a wrist shot on net at the end of a shift and broke the tie. The eventual game-winning goal was Nugent’s first career goal in 64 games and it reversed Notre Dame’s January slide at the time.
“To be honest at the time, I was just happy to get that goal,” Nugent said. “We were in a bad place at that point in the season and I was just happy because it was a good boost. Looking back, I would be a little disappointed if I didn’t score my whole college career.”
Notre Dame surged in the remainder of the regular season, going 5-2-3 down the stretch. Then in March the Irish won the last ever CCHA tournament. Notre Dame defeated Bowling Green twice, Ohio State and then Michigan in the championship matchup at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. It was the fifth time the Irish defeated the Wolverines in the 2012-13 season and capped off a season sweep. The seniors said it was an incredible experience.
Senior defenseman Sam Calabrese said the CCHA championship win was a special time for the team.
“Beating Michigan at Joe Louis, for the fifth time, is something I will always remember,” Calabrese said. “To go out on top of the CCHA, it is a great way to go out and see the ND banner hanging up in Joe Louis.”
Junior captain and All-American center Anders Lee said the best part of winning the CCHA title was sharing it with his teammates.
“I was happy to be able to win the conference and be together as a team to celebrate the joys of winning,” Anders said.
With the victory over the Wolverines, the Irish entered the NCAA tournament but lost 5-1 in the first round to St. Cloud State.
“We ran into a really good St. Cloud team,” Calabrese said. “I don’t think we played our best game of the season, but it was a good ride.”
Lee said that although the Irish fell short there were many positives in the season.
“We have a caliber team that is capable of and wanted to compete for a national championship,” Lee said. “It was a disappointment that we fell a little short, but we won the CCHA and took down a lot of top-ranked teams this season.”
Nugent credited the team’s success to the camaraderie and closeness of this season’s group of athletes.
“Overall, we bonded more as a team more than any of the other four years I was here,” Nugent said. “This translated to our success and unfortunately we lost in the NCAA playoffs, … I’ve been lucky to get to know these guys so well.”
Calabrese said his teammates and future Irish hockey players should embrace the moments like the CCHA championship and the NCAA tournament.
“Enjoy the moment,” Calabrese said. “You don’t really think of yourself as a senior and you expect to get back, but embrace those championship moments – conference finals and NCAA tournament – because you never know if you will be back. So, enjoy your time at Notre Dame and as a Notre Dame student athlete.”
After the season, the Irish named Lee – who went on to help the New York Islanders make a playoff run in the NHL – the Notre Dame Monogram Club MVP. The Irish coaching staff awarded Johnson the Charles “Lefty” Smith Coaches honor as the unsung hero of the team. Sophomore right wing Peter Schneider was awarded the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as the player with the top grade-point average on the team, and sophomore defenseman Robbie Russo earned the William Donald Nyrop defensive player of the year.
Looking back on the season and his career, Calabrese said the team is a family, which made for an incredible four years.
“These were special times,” Calabrese said. “It’s a family here. Being with these guys for four straight years, you learn so much about them. They are there for you and they celebrate with you the joys of being a student athlete. I still keep in touch with the seniors and juniors from my freshman year and I know I will keep in touch with these guys too.”
Contact Isaac Lorton at [email protected]