Leadership core, emerging youth carry Irish back to NCAAs
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, May 13, 2016
Notre Dame thawed out its spot in the NCAA tournament this season, but the team’s stay was short-lived as it lost in an instant classic to rival Michigan, falling 3-2 in overtime on March 25.
After the Wolverines jumped out to a 1-0 lead midway through the first period, Irish sophomore left wing Anders Bjork sniped the Wolverine netminder on a 2-on-1 with just under five minutes left in the opening frame.
Notre Dame took a 2-1 lead just 24 seconds into the second period when Bjork set up senior center Thomas DiPauli for a knuckling one-timer from the top of the left circle, and the Irish controlled much of the flow of the game for the rest of the middle period.
Michigan sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski blasted the equalizer from the point midway through the third, though, setting the stage for overtime.
“I thought that Michigan game, we certainly could have won that game, and I was just happy with the way we played that game,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said in the hockey office at Compton Family Ice Arena on May 4. “We should have won it. We had two or three chances to score in the third period and in overtime that we just couldn’t finish, and it took a great play by one of their guys to finish the game.”
The Wolverines boasted the top offense in college hockey last season, highlighted by the CCM line of forwards juniors JT Compher and Tyler Motte and Hobey Baker finalist freshman Kyle Connor, but Jackson said his team did a great job keeping them in check all game.
“I thought DiPauli and his line with Anders Bjork and [senior center and team captain] Steven Fogarty did a great job against — they matched up against the top line the whole game,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t my matchup, it was [Michigan head coach Red Berenson’s] matchup, but they did a great job against them. They scored a couple goals, and they didn’t get scored on until the very end.”
In the end, though, the CCM line made the winning play as Compher sent a no-look backhand pass to Motte in front of a wide-open Irish net 8:19 into the overtime period.
“Frankly, the last game of the year to me, even though we lost it, I thought we played Michigan toe-to-toe,” Jackson said. “ … It was probably the one game that gave me hope going into next year that we finally figured it out. We did things the right way. I’m talking not tactically necessarily, but we knew how we had to play, and that was encouraging for me. We played against the team that had the best line in country, best offense in the country, best power play in the country. We stayed out of the penalty box. We kept our shifts short. I thought we did a really good job of containing their top line without doing it with intent, necessarily. We just did it by the way we played.”
The showdown was the first meeting between the two schools since a 3-1 Irish victory over the Wolverines in the final CCHA championship game in 2013, and the first in the NCAA tournament since Calle Ridderwall sent the Irish to the national championship game in 2009 with his overtime tally to lift Notre Dame to the 5-4 victory.
Irish sophomore goalie Cal Petersen made 32 saves in the game, including four big ones late in the third period or overtime to keep his team in the contest.
Jackson said walking into the locker room after the last game of the season is always hard knowing the seniors are taking off their jerseys for the last time, but he said talking to this year’s group was particularly difficult.
“Those kids were very close, and I think it was almost a cumulative effort — although Steven Fogarty did a great job of kind of batting down the hatches as far as getting our culture back in line — but I think it was the group as a whole, with [senior defenseman] Andy Ryan and [senior left wing] Sam Herr, [senior left wing] Mario Lucia and DiPauli,” Jackson said. “Those five guys did a really good job of controlling the young team that we had. They got those young guys to buy in, and, once they bought in, I thought that’s when we really turned the corner. They did a good job of keeping even-keeled, and, at the same time, they did a great job for us on the ice.”
After missing out on national postseason action in 2014-2015, Jackson said his team entered this season hungry to return to the national stage. The momentum actually started building down the stretch of last season, Jackson said, when the Irish closed the regular season with a 5-2-2 stretch and then bounced back from a loss against Massachusetts in the longest college hockey game in history to win the next two games and clinch the win in the opening round of the Hockey East tournament.
“That was probably when that sophomore class — the freshman class at that time — really started coming into their own a little bit of that time of the year,” Jackson said. “They started developing confidence and that’s what you happens with young guys. … I think it caught up to us a little bit from a fatigue standpoint … but even so, I think it left a little bit of a bad taste in their mouth because they had been playing pretty well. That’s probably what got us off to at least the right mindset going into the next year.”
Bjork led the youthful charge for the Irish. The sophomore won a bronze medal with Team USA at the IIHF World Junior championships in Helsinki in late December and early January. The Mequon, Wisconsin, native tallied three goals, including two in Team USA’s bronze-medal win over Sweden.
Bjork scored in five straight games when he returned to campus en route to amassing a 10-game point streak and establishing himself as a centerpiece of the Irish offense.
Bjork’s return also helped fuel a 12-game unbeaten stretch from late November to late January where the Irish went 9-0-3. After a 4-0 loss to Boston College ended the streak, Notre Dame rattled off four straight wins to push it to a 13-1-3 record over 17 games that vaulted the Irish as high as No. 7 in the polls.
“I thought, like when Anders Bjork came back from the national junior team, I thought that he was on fire for probably about a month,” Jackson said. “But a lot of the other guys, the young guys on the blue line especially, and then some of the sophomore forwards — guys like [center] Jake Evans, [center] Connor Hurley, along with Bjork — I thought they started having real solid years for sophomores.”
Bjork led the Irish with 35 points on the season — 12 goals and 23 assists — while Evans (8-25-33) and DiPauli (14-18-32) helped complete the balanced Irish attack.
Defensemen sophomore Jordan Gross tallied 31 points on nine goals and 22 assists to lead the offense from the blue line while junior Justin Wade and freshman Luke Ripley established themselves as physical presences in the defensive zone.
“I think that we turned the corner this past year after losing that game to Harvard [4-1 on November 27],” Jackson said. “That was a good measuring stick for us as far as the elite level teams that we were going to see throughout the year. But that’s when we started that streak too, to where the confidence of the team got better and Cal got into a real good streak in goal. I think that’s where it started.”
Petersen started every game in net for the Irish this year, posting a 2.20 goals against average and .927 save percentage and one shutout. Senior walk-on goalie Nick Stasack also made a save in two appearances totaling 4:57 to finish his collegiate career with a perfect 1.000 save percentage.
Notre Dame announced the hockey program will be leaving Hockey East for the Big Ten at the end of the 2016-2017 season just two days before the Michigan game. The Irish will join the Wolverines as well as Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State in the conference. It will be the first program from Notre Dame to ever compete in the Big Ten.
Jackson said this season bodes well for the future of the program, but he added it will be hard to replace the senior class.
“We were still two-thirds of an underclass team, and now those guys are going to be expected as juniors and sophomores to elevate,” Jackson said. “Although the biggest hole is going to be replacing that senior class, and almost more from a locker room perspective than on the ice. … The void in the locker room is going to be the big question mark going into next year, from a leadership perspective.”