Hoonhout: Notre Dame’s mission is just getting started
Tobias Hoonhout | Monday, March 26, 2018
At the start of the season, if you were going to tell me Notre Dame was going to return to the Frozen Four, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Not only did the Irish lose Cal Petersen and Anders Bjork — the two catalysts of last year’s run — but Notre Dame also was beginning its maiden voyage in the Big Ten, which was never going to be a cakewalk.
Boy, was I wrong.
Last year, Notre Dame’s magical trip to the Frozen Four was cut short by Denver. The Irish were manhandled in a 6-1 loss, and in many ways it felt like the wrong way to end a season where the Irish struggled with consistency but caught fire at just the right time.
But in reality, it wasn’t about Notre Dame — the Pioneers were on a mission. The year before, they had lost in the semifinals to eventual-champions North Dakota after making it to the Frozen Four, and last year the program made it a point to come back with a vengeance.
It’s clear the Irish took notice.
As much as last year’s run was improbable, this year’s team has really silenced the doubters. There’s been the emergence of sophomore goalie Cale Morris, who has made the transition from Petersen remarkably smooth with his stellar play. There’s been the spreading of the wealth offensively thanks to the play of captain Jake Evans, who is top-10 in the country in assists. And of course, there was the 16-game win streak that spanned 87 days, setting a program record and pacing Notre Dame’s run to win the Big Ten title in its inaugural season.
But it’s all been just a prequel. There’s no doubt that the Irish have had their eye on a return to the Frozen Four since the season started. And quite frankly, their play this year has looked the part.
Notre Dame is ruthless. Jeff Jackson has always had fast teams, but there’s also an edge to this year’s squad. The return of senior defenseman Justin Wade and his big hits certainly has played a part, but from top-to-bottom, this year the Irish are rock solid. They don’t beat themselves, they have stellar play at the back end, they find a way to score when they need to and they are incredibly tough to put away.
Ever since the win streak, Notre Dame has had a target on its back. Teams have been throwing their best at the Irish, and for a brief period after clinching the Big Ten regular season championship, the team faltered, losing three of their final four games. But in the playoffs, the same grit and determination that has been at the center of this team’s identity has returned.
In the Big Ten tournament, the Irish dispatched Penn State and Ohio State with late winners. And in the regional this past weekend, Notre Dame had an answer to every punch that Michigan Tech and Providence threw.
So mission accomplished? Not quite. For Notre Dame to capture the program’s first-ever national championship, it still has two mountains to climb. But this time around, the Irish have both the tools and the mentality to do it.