Irish reload and return to Frozen Four
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, May 18, 2018
After losing their two most important players from last year’s Frozen Four run and joining the Big Ten, the Irish had plenty of question marks entering the season. But after the program’s longest ever win streak, an inaugural sweep of the Big Ten regular season and playoffs and a trip to the national championship game, Notre Dame answered all of its doubters and then some.
“You go into every season with the idea that you’re trying to play to get into the NCAA tournament, trying to play to do well in your conference games, but going into the year we didn’t have a big senior class, and those two losses were going to be impactful, and we didn’t know to what degree because there were some unknowns,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said on his expectations heading into the season. “… It was probably less of a concern for me to lose [former Irish forward Anders Bjork], just in the fact that we had enough good offensive players to maybe not individually score like Bjork but to certainly make up for the loss of his 52 points, so for me it was more of a matter of finding that goaltender for a guy that has been the iron man here for us for three years. … We were going into the year with high expectations, but I’m always a little guarded until I see which young guys are going to step up, how the freshmen are going to impact things and if there’s any returning players that can take another step.”
To replace captain Cal Petersen, who signed with the Los Angeles Kings after starting 90 consecutive games for the Irish over three seasons, the Irish turned to sophomore Cale Morris and freshman Dylan St. Cyr to ascertain who would emerge as the starting net-minder. After going back and forth over Notre Dame’s non conference game, Morris started the opening conference series at Ohio State and never looked back, capping off his incredible season with the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender.
“Well we went into the year — we had a good young goaltender coming in too in Dylan St. Cyr, so my plan was through the non-conference games was to rotate them to try and identify which guy could potentially be a number one guy or potentially rotate the two further,” Jackson said. “I went through those first five to six weeks rotating the goaltenders, there were some points where Dylan looked really good and there were some points where Cale looked really good, and then the last couple weekends before we started conference play Cale was better than Dylan, and that earned him the opportunity to play in those two conference games on the road against Ohio State, which started our winning streak and he never looked back.
“He was phenomenal that weekend and at that point it was going to be hard for me to take him out until he struggled or he had an off game, and he didn’t for 16 games. So that certainly had a huge impact on our season and really solidified him as our number one goaltender for the season.”
Notre Dame’s improbable run of 16 straight wins, including a 13-0-0 record in conference play, saw the program set a record for consecutive wins and helped set up the team to claim the Big Ten title in its first season in the conference.
“There were a number of times when our team scored timely goals, late goals even overtime goals to win a game. We were getting great goaltending, and we were probably averaging about three goals a game, so Cale was lights out,” Jackson said on the streak. “He was keeping teams to one or two goals, or even less with a few shutouts. I’d say that certainly that Ohio State weekend was a big weekend for us for the first conference weekend, especially on the road, and for us to have some success against the team that won the playoffs last year in the Big Ten — Penn State — here at home, I think that series certainly showed that we were capable of competing against the best teams in the conference, and the same thing would apply to the Minnesota series that we had early in the year.
“… To win both games against Penn State and Minnesota, the playoff champion and the regular season champion from last year, both of those series were probably indicators that we were going to be pretty good.”
Perhaps even more impressive about the streak was the fact that the Big Ten was one of the strongest conferences in the country this season. The conference had five teams in the top 20 of the final season rankings, and three Big Ten teams made it to the Frozen Four — Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State. Jackson said his team’s preparation for the run that it made stemmed directly from the level of competition the team faced for the majority of the season.
“There was no easy weekends, every weekend was a challenge, especially in the second half when some of those teams started getting better,” he said. “If you’ve got four or five of the Big Ten teams that are in the top 10 or 15 in the country, that’s the level of teams you’re playing on a nightly basis so when you get to the tournament especially after having gone through the two games, the semifinal and finals in the Big Ten playoffs, those games are at such a high pace and high stakes that it really allows your team to develop confidence and also play at a high level versus very good teams. They certainly helped prepare us to go into the playoffs on a positive note.”
Besides Morris, the Irish relied heavily on the contributions of its senior class, including captain Jake Evans and assistant captain Jordan Gross. Jackson said the leadership both on and off the ice was paramount for the team and its success this season.
“The seniors are a large reason of why we had the year we had, and for different reasons,” he said. “You had guys that were very impactful players on the ice like Jake Evans and Jordan Gross, but [defenseman] Justin Wade returning for his senior year, he had a huge influence on our team as well in a different way. Guys like [forward] Dawson Cook and [forward] Bo Brauer, they had probably their best year in their time here, and most importantly is the leadership that they provided. I think especially that Jordan and Jake, but even with help from guys like Bo Brauer, I think the leadership was strong, they held our standards high, they held everybody to account, and I thought we had a good year off the ice as much as we had on the ice.”
While the Irish were incredibly solid in the back, the offense benefited both on and off the ice from Evans, who led the team with 46 points, including a team-high 33 assists, and the game winning goal to send the Irish to the national championship. Jackson said Evans’ growth as a player and leader was a real benefit to the program.
“Jake, he’s grown over four years. He came in here as a true freshman, a young kid, and he left as a 21-year old senior and was younger than a lot of freshman in the country, so his maturity really developed over the last four years,” Jackson said. “He’s a guy that always did things right and he did things right on and off the ice, but also I think he was a leader by doing a good job of making sure the team was on the same page, and I give the seniors a lot of credit for that but Jake was the leader of that group and certainly did a tremendous job for us.”
While the Irish eventually fell agonizingly short of the program’s first national title, and are losing the senior class to graduation and juniors Dennis Gilbert and Andrew Oglevie to the NHL, Jackson said the program will be primed to succeed next season with more depth.
“We’ll have a solid group coming back,” Jackson said. “ … Going into this year we’re going to have four returnees on the blue line and four freshmen defensemen, so it’ll be a matter of how fast a couple those defensemen acclimate, we have some talent back there, a couple of guys that are going to be good offensive guys to help replace a guy like Jordan, we’ll probably not have an answer for the loss of Justin Wade, so that’s something that’s going to be a question mark going into the season, with the physicality and the defensive play of a guy like Justin.
“Up front I think we’re going to be better with our depth, it’ll just be dependent upon which freshmen step up offensively to really give us an answer to what our scoring depth is going to be like with the loss of our top three scorers. But I like our freshmen class — it’s a nine-man class and it’ll certainly give us a little bit more depth up front, it will give us more speed up front and it will probably give us a little more grit up front.
“Right now, we go into the season the same way, we know we have a great goaltender coming back, actually a couple great goaltenders, and we have a really sound core of defensemen and it will be a matter of those younger guys elevating, see which guys step up early, and then it will just be a matter of putting everything in the right place up front as far as which forwards will be able to contribute more offensively, and which guys can grind it out. It’s always a work in progress and you never really know until you get here but it’ll be a good group again and we’ll be excited to see if we can try and get back to the same place we were a year ago.”