Klonsinski: The time is now for the supposedly ‘young’ Irish
Zach Klonsinski | Thursday, April 6, 2017
Let’s make one thing clear: Notre Dame is not the “young” team it’s been labeled this season.
The only thing missing from the resumes of most Irish players on this squad was a signature win.
They checked that box two weekends ago by rallying against both Minnesota and UMass Lowell to earn this spot in the Frozen Four.
At the beginning of the season, sure, there was a clear leadership void, and the only two seniors on this year’s roster — backup goalie Chad Katunar and third- or fourth-line forward Ben Ostlie — were not going to fill the gap. Instead, Irish head coach Jeff Jackson tabbed junior netminder Cal Petersen as the team’s captain and his fellow juniors — forwards Anders Bjork and Jake Evans and defenseman Luke Ripley — as the assistant captains.
Make no mistake, though: These juniors, and to a slightly lesser degree the sophomores, are anything but “young” at this point in their careers.
The Irish have been playing what Bjork has termed “desperation hockey” for almost two months now, needing to string together quality wins just to secure a berth in the NCAA tournament.
They did just that, closing the regular season with a 5-1-2 mark, and then sweeping Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
The run over that stretch was made by a mature team led by as experienced a class as you’ll find in college hockey.
There was no easing this junior class in; they were thrust into regular action immediately. After the 2013-2014 season, the year before this year’s junior class enrolled, Notre Dame graduated 11 seniors, opening up immediate playing time for the nine incoming freshmen.
Last season, Notre Dame figured something out: From late November to early February, the Irish compiled a 13-1-3 record. The Irish stumbled at the end of the season though, dropping six of their last seven games.
The team was still a step away: Notre Dame had a hard time winning when the lights shone brightest.
The team’s lone loss during its hot stretch last season came at home against Boston College, when the Irish, in perhaps the most-hyped home game in a couple seasons, fell flat on their faces, losing 4-0. It happened again in the playoffs against Northeastern, as the Huskies rolled through South Bend with 3-1 and 6-4 victories.
Notre Dame demonstrated its developing resiliency in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Michigan, however. The Irish played one of their best games of the season against the Wolverines, though they ultimately fell in overtime.
This season, Notre Dame continued winning, giving them a chance to win the Hockey East regular-season crown in the final game. With two glaring exceptions, the team has played solid hockey day-in and day-out this season, demonstrating a consistency found in mature teams.
Those two blips both came at the hands of UMass Lowell, the bane of Notre Dame’s Hockey East existence. To make it worse, the second came under the bright lights of Boston’s TD Garden as the River Hawks embarrassed the Irish, 5-1, in the Hockey East semifinals.
Notre Dame cleared that mental hurdle two weekends ago in Manchester, however, and now sits just two wins away from the program’s first national championship.
With a roster that theoretically could return every player who has seen action for them this season except for Ostlie, some Irish fans could be forgiven for thinking that next year is Notre Dame’s best chance to bring home the national championship.
But college hockey works in funny ways.
In addition to the annual havoc of a single-elimination tournament, the Irish face the strong possibility of losing some of their top talent to the NHL after the season. The Bruins are probably salivating over the thought of adding Bjork to their postseason roster, for example. Yet another player, like Evans, departing for professional hockey at the season’s end is not completely out of the question, especially as the NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement encourages teams to attempt to sign draft picks before their senior year.
Led into the Frozen Four by a class that may be as experienced as you’ll find in college hockey and facing a future that is always uncertain, Notre Dame is ready to seize this moment.
When the Irish take to the ice Thursday in Chicago, they will be skating against the top seed in this year’s tournament, with the winner of a matchup of the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds waiting for them should Notre Dame reach the championship game Saturday.
The road is daunting, but, simply put, no team is better prepared to meet it.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.