Klonsinski: Youth finding its groove for Irish
Zach Klonsinski | Wednesday, January 27, 2016
There’s something different echoing off all that fancy stone at Compton Family Ice Arena.
Notre Dame (14-4-7, 10-1-2 Hockey East) is in the midst of a 12-game unbeaten streak, the fifth longest in school history and the longest in the nation at the moment. The Irish have ridden their recent hot play to a spot just inside the top 10 of the national rankings — No. 10 in the USCHO poll and No. 9 according to USA Today — and a tie for second in Hockey East.
Notre Dame has won its last six contests on home ice, including the first game of its unbeaten streak, a 3-1 victory over Western Michigan on Nov. 28. The Irish are 3-0-3 on the road over that stretch, including a 4-3, come-from-behind victory over then-No. 3 Boston College at Conte Forum on Dec. 10. The Irish and Eagles entered the third period tied before BC scored two goals in the first 7:05 to take a 3-1 lead in front of its home crowd.
That’s a tough situation for any team to find itself in, especially for a young Irish squad that still hadn’t quite found itself at that point in the season.
Thirteen minutes later, however, Notre Dame proved it could skate with anyone.
Sophomore defenseman Jordan Gross and freshman center Andrew Oglevie scored to tie the game, and freshman defenseman Dennis Gilbert netted the game winner with just 22 seconds left in regulation.
It was a big win for a team that has battled the problems that come with youth last year and the first few months of this season. The Irish roster is composed of 15 freshmen and sophomores, and there have been some early growing pains.
The Irish gave up at least three goals in each of their first four games, including blowing a two-goal lead against No. 5 Minnesota Duluth on Oct. 24. Notre Dame also had to settle for a tie after giving up three third-period goals against Western Michigan on Jan. 9.
Penalties were also an early problem for the team, especially of the major variety: The Irish took three major penalties in the first nine games of the year. Notre Dame also took 10 penalties during Saturday’s 3-2 win over New Hampshire, which Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said was due to his team’s inability to adjust to a different set of referees from Friday night to Saturday night.
“That’s a maturing process,” Jackson said. “We have to try to eliminate some of the penalties that we’re taking, there’s no question. … We’ve been really good over the last month. This is the first time that I thought that in a while penalties became a factor for us.”
And there have certainly been flashes of brilliance from the younger players as well.
Sophomore left wing Anders Bjork earned a spot on the U.S. World Junior Championship team that won bronze in Helsinki and has scored five goals in his six games since returning to the Irish. Bjork also owns a 10-game point streak, which is just one of the personal streaks young Irish skaters have built recently: Freshman defenseman Bobby Nardella (seven games) and sophomore center Jake Evans (six) also extended their streaks last weekend against New Hampshire.
“A lot of our sophomores are really coming into their own,” Jackson said. “It’s been a year and a half for them in college hockey, and they’re coming into their own, and some of the freshmen have really elevated their games and have shown some signs of contributing offensively, which is really important.”
Another positive sign for the Irish: Mario Lucia has found his offensive game of late. The senior left wing has scored six goals over his team’s last six games, five of which were wins.
Notre Dame is beginning to find its groove. The Irish know they have a No. 1 goalie in net in sophomore Cal Petersen, and the young defense corps in front of him has developed nicely, led by the emergence of junior Justin Wade.
If Notre Dame wants to find success in the postseason, it will need to continue that growth and development of its youth to support its core group of seniors.
At this point, though, the pieces all appear to be there.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.