Notre Dame heads into first Big Ten season with experience, questions
Notre Dame heads into a new season with high hopes after catching fire late last season en route to the Frozen Four — a run that ultimately ended at the hands of eventual champion Denver. The program has been impressive as of late, appearing in the Frozen Four three times in the past 10 seasons. Aiming to build upon this success, the Irish join the Big Ten this year for a new challenge, as the conference has four other teams ranked in the top 25 according to major preseason polls. As of now, the Irish rank No. 8, primed for a successful season amongst a competitive field. Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson is certainly aware of the nature of this new challenge and is prepared to face it head on.
“The Big Ten … scores a lot of goals,” Jackson said. “We have played Minnesota in the past, we’ve played Penn State … both teams create a lot of offense. So, we have to evaluate where we are with that. How that offense is being generated. The Big Ten this year for us is probably going to be like playing in Hockey East without the bottom three or four teams … You’re going to be playing in a very tough environment.”
On top of these new conference challenges, the Irish head into the 2017-18 season without two crucial team members. The first is forward Anders Bjork, who signed a three-year contract with the Boston Bruins this past offseason. Bjork was the offensive player of the year for the Irish last season, and was even named the Northeast Regional’s Most Outstanding Player. He finished his junior season with 21 goals and 31 assists for a total of 52 points, which will certainly leave a noteworthy hole in the Irish offense, and while Jackson recognizes those are big skates to fill, he believes the Irish can collectively replace the offensive production Bjork generated last season.
“I don’t think it’s going to be any one guy that’s going to help fill that void offensively … so we’re going to have to make up those fifty points with everybody. I think there’s certainly guys from last year’s team that could be more productive offensively. But, I think we can make up for those points.”
However, even more concerning than Bjork’s departure is the loss of former goaltender Cal Petersen, who signed a contract with the Los Angeles Kings in the offseason. Last season, Peterson was the defensive player of the year for the Irish and was named a first-team Hockey East All-Star. In his junior season he recorded a total of 1101 saves with 2.22 goals against average. He finished the season 23-12-5, and, despite a loss to Denver in the Frozen Four, he racked up a season high 36 saves. He certainly leaves some big shoes to fill, as it is still unclear who will be the goaltender for the Irish this year, as Jackson is still evaluating the battle for starter between freshman Dylan St. Cyr and sophomore Cale Morris.
“I think we got a real battle going on,” Jackson said. “Dylan was out for a little while … he’s back now at full strength. But I mean we brought him in to compete with Cale. I think both goaltenders are capable and it is going to be a matter of who performs at this point. The one thing we have to understand is the both of them don’t have much experience at the college level … so it’s going to be a matter of who grows into that position sooner.”
Nevertheless, the Irish have a considerable amount of returning seniors who look to fill leadership roles in this pivotal season. Their experience is sure to aid the flow of practice and quell the struggles the team faces early on, and Jackson is confident in his returning team members.
“It’s already shown up a little bit in practice because we have a lot of guys who really know what’s going on,” Jackson said. “There’s only been a handful of freshmen, four freshmen forwards, and we have a couple that are already showing themselves as far as having a pretty good grasp of what we’re doing and how we play.”
One of those returning team members is senior forward Jake Evans. Newly-named the captain for this upcoming season, Evans proved a significant asset to the team his junior year, recording 13 goals and 29 assists for a total of 41 points. Most notably, he came to play in tough situations. Evans recorded an assist on the game winning goal against powerhouse Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA championship. He even assisted the game tying goal against UMass Lowell, which pushed the team to an overtime win that sent them to the Frozen Four. Evans is excited for the season and confident in facing the challenges ahead with his teammates.
“I think we’re in a great spot,” Evans said. “I think we’re just excited to get back at it. It was a tough way to end last year. I think we’re ready … we’re an older team than usual but we’ve got some young guys coming in to step in. We’ve got a lot of strong players and some good depth on this team, so it’s going to be a good year.”
Evans looks to utilize the leadership of the older guys on the team in mentoring younger players. The season will be tough: new arenas, powerhouse teams, and unique challenges, but he thinks the vast experience of senior team members will help the younger guys get off to a great start.
“It’s definitely different with us,” Evans said. “It’ll be nice, we’ve got a lot of guys who have played in a lot of rinks, a lot of tough situations which will hopefully help with the younger guys getting into it pretty quickly.”
Notre Dame will open its season with a home exhibition this Sunday, Oct. 1 against the United States National Team Development program at Compton Family Ice Arena. The Irish will then go on to play their first regular season game at home against Alabama-Huntsville the following weekend.