After difficult ending, Irish hockey hungry for more in 2021-22
Andrew McGuinness | Friday, May 21, 2021
Perseverance has been the name of the game across the world over the last year, and the Notre Dame men’s hockey team is no exception. In head coach Jeff Jackson’s 16th season behind the Irish bench, Notre Dame battled COVID protocols and a deep Big 10 conference en route to a fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance (the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19). But unforeseen circumstances out of their control ended Notre Dame’s season before they were able to participate in this year’s tournament, which was ultimately won by UMass.
Navigating this unique season was a challenge, and it made an already difficult conference and schedule even more difficult. It made consistency almost impossible to find. For the Irish, it was win three straight, lose three straight. Win the last four of the regular season, only to bow out in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament to a Penn State club the Irish had swept a two-game series from eight days prior by a combined margin of 12-3.
The lack of home-ice advantage caused by an empty Compton Family Ice Arena had a clear impact on the season; look no further than the Irish’s home/road splits. At Compton, the Irish were only 5-11-1 and lost their only Big 10 tournament game on that ice as well. Away from South Bend, the club was outstanding, posting a stellar 9-2-1 record. Notre Dame wasn’t swept in a single road series in 2020-21; they were swept at home three times.
“Without fans, it was definitely something to get used to. Especially (without) the Notre Dame fans. We have an awesome fanbase, awesome student section, and band, so it’s something we really miss” said junior defenseman Spencer Stastney, who was named the team’s top defensive player May 13.
Despite the early exit in the Big 10 championship, the Irish were poised for a post-season appearance. The club was hungry to face the Boston College Eagles in the NCAA tournament in hopes of making a deep run. But Notre Dame’s season ended in the blink of an eye when the team was forced to bow out of the tournament due to COVID issues before playing a single game. “We were all holding our breath in that announcement ceremony. We were extremely excited for the opportunity, and we rightfully earned that spot. Traveling out there and really getting COVID right away, that, that was pretty brutal,” Stastney said. “It was pretty disheartening to make it seven months and then at the end have it come crashing down.”
Notre Dame’s first line, including junior Alex Steeves and centering brothers wingers junior Graham and freshman and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Landon Slaggert, tore opponents apart. Steeves — Notre Dame’s season MVP with 15 goals and 17 assists — finished tied for 10th with North Dakota center Shane Pinto in the NCAA in scoring with 32 points. Graham Slaggert was tied for 34th in the nation at 25 points (8 goals, 17 assists). And Landon Slaggert won a gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton Jan. 5.
“Something that separates them from others is their creativity and their freedom on the ice,” Stastney said. I think we play a very structured game but those guys found a way to play a structured game but also use their individual skill set to really complement each other. They were such an important part of our offense. All three of them are extremely talented, have a bright future in hockey, and brought a lot to our team last year.”
Long-time hockey coach and broadcaster Harry Neale once said, “Goaltending is 75 percent of your hockey team, unless you don’t have it. Then it’s 100 percent” The Irish had tremendous goaltending this season, with senior Dylan St. Cyr easy to mistake for a brick wall on several nights. St. Cyr’s .921 save percentage ranked top-twenty across the entire NCAA in 2020-21. “He was great, not only on the ice but off the ice,” Stastney said. “He’s grinding and working hard every day. And it was nice to see him have a great season this year. As a defenseman myself, it’s nice knowing you have a guy back there that you trust and is going to make the big saves.”
Overall, the Irish ranked fourth in the Big Ten with a solid 2.69 goals against per game and 80.8% penalty kill. St. Cyr and the Irish defense, which finished third in the Big 10 with 29.76 shots allowed per game, held down the fort all season. The backend was led by their top pair of Stastney and fellow junior defenseman Nate Clurman, the team’s captain. Junior Nick Leivermann led ND defensemen with 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists).
Such a dissatisfying ending to their season no doubt leaves the Irish hungry for more in the 2021-22 season. “We had a good journey, we had a good run, and we just tried to stay positive and stick together,” Stastney said in reflecting on the season that was. Despite the challenges the Irish faced, they certainly had some memorable moments. They swept a two-game series against top-ranked Minnesota in mid-January. The Irish were undefeated in shootouts. St. Cyr pitched consecutive shutouts on Feb. 26 and 27 against the Michigan State Spartans. And a 7-1 thumping of Penn State to end the regular season made for an epic Senior Night send-off for ND Hockey’s class of 2021.
This was then followed by an announcement that senior Matt Hellickson signed a contract with the Binghamton Devils for the remainder of the 2020-2021 season and that he and 2020 Irish graduate Cal Petersen would join the US Men’s National Team for the upcoming World Championship. The 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation Men’s World Championship will take place May 21 – June 6 in Riga, Latvia.
The hopeful return of Irish fans to Compton would certainly help the team take another step forward next season. “With the fans next year hopefully coming back, we should be able to feed off their energy and really try and bounce back at home,” Statsney said. And for rising seniors like Stastney, that energy and urgency are amplified ten-fold. “I’m looking forward to having a better season, not just for the fans, but our coaching staff, my fellow seniors, and the team that we’ll be playing with,” he said. “I think it’s one last chance to represent Notre Dame and we’re gonna do our best to have a great season.”