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Hoonhout: Notre Dame’s new identity makes it legitimate contender

| Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Expectations can be tricky.

On one hand, they are built on past success. On the other, they always result in question marks.

But this season, No. 1 Notre Dame has answered every question thrown at it.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish freshman defenseman Matt Hellickson looks to move the puck from off the boards during Notre Dame’s 5-1 loss to Ohio State on Saturday.

Although there were certainly doubts about how well the Irish (22-6-2, 16-3-1 Big Ten) could replicate last season’s incredible Frozen Four run, which was built on the playmaking ability of forward Anders Bjork and the steadiness of captain Cal Petersen in net, Notre Dame has smashed the rebuild narrative, winning its first regular-season conference championship since 2009 — and in its first year in the conference, no less. This team is deep and experienced on both ends of the ice. Even sophomore goalie Cale Morris, who hadn’t started a game until this season, has stepped in with an uncanny veteran-like ability.

“I’ve said all season long, he’s been our rock,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said of the sophomore. “He’s the guy that’s made the difference in so many games. … He’s had a lot of experience at the junior level, and last year wasn’t a wasted year — we worked with him quite a bit with goalie sessions and scrimmage situations. He developed last year. As coaches, we all thought he got better last year, even though he didn’t play, and that’s a rarity in today’s game. Usually, guys are just complaining.”

The end of that quote is the important part.

This season, Notre Dame isn’t built on one player, or two, or three. As fun as the Irish were to watch last year, it was pretty simple — stop Bjork from doing his thing and/or disrupt Petersen’s mojo in net, and suddenly it was a lot easier to beat the Irish. The meltdown in the Frozen Four against Denver last April was a perfect example.

But this season, the Irish have reforged their identity as a team that beats you from a variety of different players and angles.

And it defends. A lot.

Last year, Notre Dame gave up an average 2.33 goals a game. This time around, aided by the return of senior Justin Wade, the Irish defense has cut that down to 2.07, good for third in the country. On the penalty kill, the unit has jumped from 85.6 to 88.1 percent, also good for a top-five mark in the country. Morris has certainly been stellar, but Notre Dame’s defense has certainly played its role in helping the sophomore become a Hobey Baker candidate almost overnight.

And on the offensive end, the Irish don’t have a game changer like Bjork, but they do have a knack for scoring when it matters and — perhaps even more importantly — not surrendering leads. This season, Notre Dame is a remarkable 18-1-2 when scoring first, a main reason why the team went on an unprecedented 16-game winning streak earlier this year. With an every-play- and every-player-matters mentality, the Irish have emerged from the shadows of uncertainty as a legit contender.

So what’s the next step?

For Notre Dame, it’s about unfinished business. The Irish didn’t like how they went out last year.

“For me, it just makes us more hungry to get back out there and come in with a better mindset, similar to what this Denver team here did [last year],” junior forward Andrew Oglevie said after last year’s Frozen Four loss to Denver. “We’re going to build off of it, have a good offseason and come back ready.”

This year, Notre Dame has clearly taken this to heart. Rather than a rebuild, Jackson and the Irish have reloaded. And for all the success so far, with the postseason looming and the win streak a thing of the past, it’s time for the program to really see what it’s made of.

But based on what we’ve seen so far, the only question is how far this team wants to go.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias