Jan. 17, 2016
By John Heisler
Don't look for pithy Twitter proclamations from Jeff Jackson's account.
Don't expect posters in the University of Notre Dame hockey locker room-certainly not in plain view.
Don't listen for even whispers of these statistics anywhere near the Irish program.
But know that, as of this morning, the numbers say Jackson's 11th Notre Dame hockey team is the hottest in the country.
That's because the Irish (now 12-4-7 overall and 8-1-2 in Hockey East games) have a current streak of 10 consecutive games without a defeat (seven wins, three ties)-and it's a long way back to second place.
Next in line with six without a loss are Bemidji State, Northeastern, 12th-rated Yale (all at 5-0-1) and 14th-ranked Denver (at 3-0-3). Sixth-rated Michigan and Ohio State meet Sunday night, both with a chance to extend their current runs to six.
Top-ranked North Dakota? The Fighting Hawks lost an overtime home game Friday to Omaha.
Second-rated Quinnipiac? The Bobcats lost their only game of the year Dec. 12 at home to Boston University and now have gone five games without sampling defeat.
Third-rated Providence? The Friars dropped consecutive road games against Brown and Boston College on Jan. 3 and 8, respectively.
None of that will count for anything next weekend in Durham, New Hampshire, where the Irish play in their first road Hockey East twin bill since before Thanksgiving. New Hampshire has lost four games in succession, but Jackson surely remembers a lost weekend at Whittemore Center two seasons back when the Irish dropped 4-2 and 5-2 contests to the Wildcats. Notre Dame is 3-7 overall against New Hampshire and has never won in Durham.
"We haven't had a lot of success against them," Jackson reminded his team Saturday night.
Still, all the Irish coaches have to like the way in which Notre Dame has been managing the puck, mostly avoiding costly penalties and dominating the shots-on-goal column. Meanwhile, sophomore goaltender Cal Petersen continues to impress in the net.
Jackson's charges completed a successful weekend with a solid 5-1 triumph against conference foe Merrimack Saturday evening at the Compton Family Ice Arena. That came on the heels of a 7-2 Irish victory Friday night-as Notre Dame posted seven (or more) goals in successive home games for the first time in 21 years.
The Irish collectively did their jobs well enough that Petersen needed to make only 16 saves Saturday-as Notre Dame posted a gaudy 45-17 edge in shots on goal.
Notre Dame's sweep of Merrimack marked its third double-victory weekend in Hockey East competition in 2015-16 (not counting a win and a tie against Northeastern)-something the Irish managed to do only one time (at Massachusetts) all last season.
In reality, Notre Dame and Merrimack qualified as two hockey freight trains headed in decidedly opposite directions.
While the Warriors lost only once in their first 11 outings (including two overtime ties against then-seventh-rated UMass Lowell), Merrimack now finds itself losers of seven straight games-with only a single victory to show in its last 14 contests. In one stretch the Warriors went 155:02 without scoring.
Credit Notre Dame with taking care of business in workmanlike fashion two nights in a row in games it expected to win.
The Irish tallied 3:42 into the contest Friday (on an Anders Bjork power-play goal) and built a 4-1 edge by late in the second period. On Saturday senior Sam Herr scored 5:26 into the contest and the home team held a 3-0 advantage after two periods.
On Friday, Notre Dame's third defensive pairing of freshman Bobby Nardella and sophomore Jordan Gross accounted for two goals and four assists. Another rookie, Andrew Oglevie, scored the third and fourth Irish goals (and added an assist on the fifth) and earned the number-one star honor. Meanwhile, senior Mario Lucia added a goal and an assist and became the 49th Notre Dame player to reach the career 100-point mark.
On Saturday, Notre Dame's second offensive line of Herr, sophomore Jake Evans and Bjork collaborated for two goals and five assists--with Bjork extending his personal points streak to eight games (6-7-13). Nardella added another goal and assist and joined Bjork and Herr as the three stars-with Irish assistant Andy Slaggert snapping a quick postgame cellphone shot since the trio all once competed for the Chicago Mission midget major program.
Jackson's Saturday pregame message to his charges? In part it involved Irish recognition of an opponent desperate for a win:
"Let's have some urgency. We have to win battles on the wall. We've got to have back pressure and be fast out of the neutral zone. Let's start putting some heat on teams off face-offs.
"There are two points on the line. It's all about puck management and work ethic."
The Irish began play Saturday looking for their sixth consecutive home victory-and that hadn't happened since late in the 2012-13 campaign (two wins over Michigan, then four in a row versus Bowling Green, the last two in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs).
Herr's unassisted tally made it 1-0 when he poked in the puck after it came loose between the Merrimack goalie and his defenders. Freshman Dennis Gilbert and Evans both played a hand there in keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Two unsuccessful Notre Dame power plays helped account for a 16-4 edge in first-period shots.
"Second twenty here, boys. Need a full sixty," Jackson barked to his team on the way into the locker room. "We did a good job, but they are playing much more conservatively. We're going to have to work harder here to get that next goal."
A Merrimack contact-to-the-head penalty with nine seconds left in the opening period meant the Irish started the second session with the man advantage-and Nardella seized that opportunity 78 seconds in, walking the puck in and snapping off a wrister.
Then Nardella came around the rear of the net and Lucia, camped in front, knocked it home for a 3-0 edge with 11:53 remaining in the second. The two-period shots-on-goal totals showed a telltale 26-8 lead for the home squad.
"They're fighting for their lives right now," said Jackson during the second intermission. "Discipline is the key. Can we close teams out? That's the difference between a good and a great team.
"Let's shut this thing down. That's what great teams do. It was 3-0 last Saturday at Western Michigan (before the Broncos rebounded for a tie). Let's finish this off. Closer mindset. Gotta be a closer."
Merrimack may have injected a hint of concern with an even-strength goal midway through the final period to make it 3-1. But Bjork needed only 79 seconds to get it back, clanking one down and into the net off the crossbar (from Evans). Herr scored the final Notre Dame goal with less than three minutes to go (from Bjork and Evans).
"It was a great weekend. I'm proud of your effort," Jackson told his team. "We did a great job of putting pressure on them."
The Notre Dame head coach also liked the fact his team treated the third period on a Saturday night differently than a week earlier in Kalamazoo.
"I mentioned it to them," allowed Jackson to the media. "That's growth, that's maturity.
"It takes an entire group. We have to manage the puck because when you turn it over, that turns into shot opportunities."
And that simply did not occur Saturday night-with the Irish finishing with a dominating 45-17 tally in shots on net (while also winning 33 of 50 face-offs).
The line changes Jackson instituted last weekend? "They've helped a lot," suggested Bjork after the game.
The confidence factor? "Hope we can keep it that way," Bjork said.
A year ago, the Irish came back after Christmas and dropped six of eight contests over one late December/January stretch.
"Returning guys were not gonna let what happened last year happen again," Bjork added.
The numbers say the Irish are exactly halfway through their list of Hockey East assignments-with a home game ahead against fourth-ranked Boston College, a road doubleheader against third-rated and defending NCAA champion Providence, followed by a home twin bill versus 10th-rated Boston University.
If nothing else, Jackson likely would at least allow that his Irish are doing more of the little things on a consistent basis that permit teams to give themselves a chance to win night after night.
Please don't tell anyone.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled "Sunday Brunch," along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning "Strong of Heart" series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
-- DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky
-- 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview
-- Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes
-- One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football
-- Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:
-- Brey's Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner-and Moves On
-- Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
-- Men's Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:
-- Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:
-- Bud Schmitt Doesn't Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:
-- Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father
-- Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: