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Hockey

ND wins second-straight Big Ten Championship, fails to make third-consecutive Frozen Four

| Friday, May 17, 2019

After back to back Frozen Four appearances in 2017 and 2018 — including a run to the national championship game last season — Notre Dame certainly appeared to be a contender in the Big Ten once again entering this season. However, after losing eight players from last year’s team, this year’s team would look much different from those of previous years.

With nine incoming freshman, head coach Jeff Jackson began the season with one of his youngest squads in recent memory. With such a young group, Jackson made sure to give his team some important advice ahead of the season.

“Every team is different, and the guys that have been through this before have learned some valuable lessons, but with this year’s team being a lot younger, we wanted to focus on keeping them in the moment,” Jackson said in an interview.

Playing one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, the Irish (23-14-3, 11-11-2 Big Ten) certainly learned how to focus on one game at a time this season. After dropping their first two home games of the season, a No. 1 against No. 2 matchup with last year’s national champion Minnesota Duluth, Notre Dame responded by winning nine of their next 12 games, including victories over Big Ten foes Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. Despite success in the regular season, the team was at its best in the postseason.

After the Irish defeated Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, freshman forward Michael Graham’s overtime winner gave the Irish a 2-1 victory against Minnesota in the semifinals. Junior forward Cam Morrison scored the eventual winner one week later against Penn State to help the Irish clinch their second straight Big Ten title in front of a sellout crowd at Compton Family Ice Arena. In the NCAA tournament, Morrison again netted the winning goal to lift the Irish to a 3-2 overtime victory against Clarkson.

Notre Dame’s tournament run ultimately came to an end in the Northeast Regional Final with a 4-0 defeat against UMass. Jackson mentioned the development of his young players over the course of the season proved critical for Notre Dame’s playoff success.

“As the season went on, I thought that the young guys collectively started to buy into their specific roles and did a really good job in those roles,” Jackson said. “Each freshman did a great job of contributing in his own way, and that’s probably the most important lesson they could have learned, especially as we approached the end of the season.”

Jackson also said his experienced upperclassmen helped the Irish stay calm and collected in a number of big moments down the stretch.

“I think that’s definitely where your experience shows up, and for a lot of our veteran players that have been through playoff runs the past two years, those experiences have really helped them mature and allowed them to be patient and focused in those crunch time moments,” he said. “Whether we were in a tight game, down a goal or whatever the scenario, those guys didn’t panic, which certainly had a positive effect on the rest of the team.”

One of the themes of the 2018-2019 season for the Irish was battling through the adversity a long season often brings. In addition to some of the ups and downs provided by a difficult conference and non-conference schedule, the Irish endured a number of injuries this season. The team lost senior Joe Wegwerth for the season to a knee injury in early January and played extended periods of time without Morrison and Cal Burke. However, Jackson said his squad did an outstanding job of finding other players to step up and contribute despite the injuries to key players.

“New guys got new opportunities and took advantage of them, which was really a positive for our team,” Jackson said. “It really allowed other guys to take a bigger role, which when more guys got healthy at the end of the year, gave us more depth and allowed us to go into the postseason playing some great hockey.”

In addition to providing strong leadership in critical moments, Notre Dame’s juniors and seniors have proved to be highly influential over the entirety of their college careers. This year’s senior class was the first to reach the NCAA tournament in all four of their years with the Irish, and Jackson spoke about what they have meant to Notre Dame hockey.

“Success always boils down to your leadership group, and our upperclassman have really had a positive impact on our culture,” Jackson said. “Our culture has certainly been strong over this four year period, and each time it has been because our leadership has carried over from one year to the next. Each time those guys have done a great job of making sure we live up to the standards we have created for ourselves as a program and have made success a priority here.”

Ann Curtis | The Observer

Senior defenseman Bobby Nardella carries the puck down the left wing inside Compton Family Ice Arena in a 5-2 win against Michigan Feb. 12.

Bobby Nardella and Andrew Peeke are two of the leaders from this year’s team who will be moving on to play professional hockey next year. Nardella had a standout season serving as a primary offensive facilitator for the Irish, leading the team in points with eight goals and 26 assists. The First-Team Big Ten selection and Second-Team All-American is the first defenseman in Notre Dame history to lead the team in scoring. After a four-year college career, Nardella signed a two-year contract with the Washington Capitals this past April.

“Bobby was certainly crucial offensively for us, but also committed to playing defense for us when he needed to,” Jackson said. “I am certainly proud of the way he played this season.”

Peeke, who served as the team’s captain this season, also made an offensive impact for the Irish, scoring 24 points with 21 assists. He will forgo his senior season next year after signing a contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“Andrew did a great job leading our team as our captain, but also just in the way he played the game,” Jackson said. “He played some of the best hockey of his career in that stretch run, which is a real positive sign as he moves on to the NHL.”

Jackson also achieved a personal milestone this season, capturing his 500th career victory on the same night his team clinched the Big Ten championship. Jackson now ranks second in wins among active coaches, and is just the 13th coach to win 500 games at the Division I level. However, for Jackson, the game meant more than any personal accolade ever could.

“Frankly, it was the furthest thing from my mind,” Jackson joked. “Those personal accolades are of course far less important than the team. For me, the crowd at Compton that night, the band, the student section, is everything I had dreamt about when I took the job here, and I was always hoping we could have that kind of environment for college hockey here on the Notre Dame campus. It was a great experience and a great environment, and winning back to back conference championships is certainly a positive for our program and bodes well for the future.”

After Notre Dame’s recent four-year run of success, Jackson also spoke about how his program has developed into the national powerhouse it is today since he became the head coach 14 years ago.

“I think there has really been three phases to our development as a program,” Jackson said. “The first of which was really building a culture of excellence around here in those first three or four years. The second part was establishing an identity for our program, or what people from the outside perceive us to be. That was certainly impacted by the Compton Arena, as well as our recruiting. The third part was our transition of conferences, first from the CCHA to Hockey East and then making the move to the Big Ten. That really gave our program the national exposure to continue to grow.”

With all of the youth on this Irish squad, the future looks bright. A number of juniors like Morrison and former All-American goaltender Cale Morris will also be returning next year for their senior seasons. Jackson believes next year’s team will have all the right pieces to be dangerous once again.

“I’d like to believe that with the character of our returning group, they’re all going to be highly motivated to help our team take another step forward,” Jackson said. “We’ve definitely got the right ingredients to be successful. We’ve got goaltending, we’ll have a solid defensive core and I think another year of experience for many of our younger forwards is certainly going to help them.

“Guys like Cam Morrison and Cal Burke will hopefully add in career type years, which will certainly bode well for us offensively. Everyone needs to step up in their specific roles, and if they do that we could definitely have a great season. The focus right now is of course on having a great offseason and the guys getting themselves ready to have a great start next fall.”

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