Jan. 7, 2018
By John Heisler
The University of Notre Dame hockey team absolutely had to win its home hockey game Sunday afternoon against old rival Michigan at the Compton Family Ice Arena.
Not simply to keep the Irish number-one ranking in the USA Today/USA Hockey magazine poll intact.
Not just to extend their nation's best win streak to 15 games and push their overall record to 18-3-1 (more victories than any team in the nation).
Not only to move their Big Ten Conference record to an unprecedented 12-0.
No, the real motivation for Jeff Jackson and his squad in their first home appearance in more than a month was simply to allow the hockey team to keep pace in its own campus standings.
That's a measure of how full of achievement 2018 has been so far on the Notre Dame athletic scene.
Consider what the first week of the new year wrought for Irish teams, including Jackson's:
--New Year's Day: The 14th-rated Irish football team came from behind in the final two minutes to defeat 17th-ranked LSU 21-17 in the Citrus Bowl, in great part on an unlikely pass connection between backup quarterback Ian Book and reserve receiver Miles Boykin for 55 yards and the winning touchdown. The New Year's Day bowl win should push the Irish into the final top dozen when the last polls are released Tuesday.
--Tuesday: The Irish hockey team moved into the number-one ranking in the USA Today/USA Hockey magazine poll for the first time in 2017-18. It's the seventh different time Notre Dame has been ranked number one at some point in a season in one of the major polls.
--Wednesday: Mike Brey won his record 394th game as the Notre Dame men's basketball coach, passing Digger Phelps, in a 30-point blowout against North Carolina State. The Irish did that just 24 hours after losing All-American Bonzie Colson for eight weeks to a fractured foot and also losing Matt Farrell for the entire second half due to an ankle sprain. On a side note, that same Wolfpack squad that struggled so mightily against the injury-wracked Irish, somehow returned home to defeat second-ranked Duke by 11 points on Saturday.
--Thursday: Notre Dame's second-ranked women's basketball squad (also severely injury depleted) came from behind to record its seventh consecutive victory, this one 83-76 over Miami.
--Friday: After a month off, Jackson took his team to Ann Arbor and saw two power-play goals in the opening 10 minutes hold up behind Cale Morris' 35 saves as the Irish posted a 2-1 victory over Michigan. The game-winner came on a sublime, highlight-reel, no-look, behind-the back pass by Dylan Malmquist that Andrew Oglevie buried. Notre Dame is the only team in the country that has yet to lose a road game this season.
--Saturday: Brey's men's team missed its first 10 shots at Syracuse and saw its lineup other than Temple 'T.J.' Gibbs Jr. shoot a collective one for 19 in the opening half. But the Irish limited the Orange to 21 second-half points and won the game 51-49 on an absolute hustle play, an athletic put-back by Rex Pflueger with 2.6 seconds remaining. Brey called it, given the circumstances with Colson and Farrell injured and back in South Bend, the best win in his 18 years with the Irish. That's saying something. Plus, the Carrier Dome hardly has been known as a safe haven for visiting teams. The win qualified as pure theft.
--Sunday: Muffet McGraw's women's hoops team strolled its way to 15-1 with a routine 77-54 win at Georgia Tech. The Irish shot .623 from the field compared to .308 for the home team.
Given all that amazingly good stuff for other Irish teams, a loss by Jackson's hockey team would have dropped his squad into last place for the week in his own campus standings. Everybody else has been perfect for 2018.
The Irish started strong at Compton Sunday in a rare matinee, outshooting Michigan 13-2 to begin the game. Their 15 first-period shots marked the most in the opening period since 16 in the season opener against Alabama Huntsville.
The second period, in which the Wolverines had the best of a 15-7 shot advantage, saw the Irish convert a pair of their attempts for a 2-0 lead. Michigan scored midway through the final period to make it interesting, but Morris was his usual self in goal, shrugging off most everything thrown his direction on the way to 33 more saves. The 2-1 final matched the tally in Arbor Friday night. It's the ninth time over the 15-game winning streak that Morris has allowed one or fewer goals.
This is a loose, supremely confident Irish group that appears to be having tons of fun and not taking anything about its weeks and months of success too terribly seriously. There are smiles in the hallways around the home locker room, as pregame music wafts merrily in those environs.
Big Ten Network commentators during the game in Ann Arbor Friday suggested that even a head coach on a win streak like Jackson has his own sets of challenges and stresses. Yet it's not as if Notre Dame's hockey head man spends his time watching soap operas and eating bon-bons. He could have a way worse list of issues considering his team hasn't tasted defeat since Oct. 26.
"I never want to lose sight of the fact that we just want to keep working to get better," Jackson told his team after the game. "I don't want to talk about anything else. One of things we talked about being better at starting the second half (of the season) was our special teams, and our PK (penalty kill) and power play made a huge difference this weekend. Let's plan on building on it."
Morris appears supremely confident in net, almost as if he has no intention of letting anything past him at any point, no matter the circumstances. When the action heads to the other end, he leans back on the goal almost casually, with one arm resting on top of the crossbar. The rest of the Irish seem to feed off that mindset—that's how they roll these days.
Of the win streak, Jackson noted after the game, Notre Dame's first at home since Nov. 25, "We don't discuss it at all. We're far from being a perfect hockey team."
On another side note, former Irish player and assistant coach Chad Riley on Thursday became the new Notre Dame men's soccer coach after five successful seasons at Dartmouth. If Riley has been viewing all this recent Irish success from afar, he may already be wiping his brow and silently thinking, 'Jeez, what does my team have to do to keep pace with all that?'
Kelly and his football team don't play a game for eight months, so at least for a while they'll relish how one play can change the tenor of an offseason.
Brey and McGraw know nothing is ever handed to anyone in Atlantic Coast Conference play. They've already had to reinvent their teams at least once so far due to injuries—and that challenge figures to extend the rest of the winter for both squads.
For now, Brey's team is 3-0 in league play (along with Virginia and Clemson) without two of the best players in the entire conference. Meanwhile, vaunted Duke (ranked second nationally last week) and North Carolina (ranked 11th last week) today both stand 1-2 in conference action. Go figure.
Moving forward, look for captain Jake Evans (one of the country's leading scorers) and Morris and the rest of the Notre Dame hockey players to keep trying to do their thing. They actually have an upcoming weekend off from competition, so the Irish—still in winter break—will head to Chicago this week to work out at the United Center (site of a Jan. 21 league game against Wisconsin) and take in a Chicago Blackhawks game.
The next assignment for Notre Dame hockey comes Jan. 19 at Compton against that same Wisconsin team, ranked 15th in this week's USCHO poll.
For the Irish, the motivation is relatively simple.
Given all that's been going on with the Notre Dame athletic scene of late, Evans, Morris, Malmquist, Oglevie and the rest of the Irish just want to be able to hold their heads high while walking around their own campus.
All the rest is gravy.