Feb. 13, 2016
By John Heisler
When the Black Bears of Maine bring their hockey program to town, they tote along a bucket load of history and tradition.
NCAA title banners hung in 1993 and 1999.
Eleven Frozen Four appearances.
In fact, the Black Bears had earned 13 NCAA Championship invitations and traveled eight times to the Frozen Four before Notre Dame ever played in the NCAA event.
But none of that meant much Friday night at the Compton Family Ice Arena because eighth-ranked Notre Dame's firepower ensured that Maine's string of tough weekends continued, at least in the first of this two-game set.
The Black Bears came in having won only two of their previous 10 games--with their most recent four defeats coming at the hands of fifth-ranked Providence and seventh-rated Boston University. (Ironically, those are the two teams the Irish face the next two weekends.)
That compared to the Irish who now have lost but once (to currently third-rated Boston College) in their last 16 games and clawed their way into a tie for first in Hockey East with the Eagles. (Boston College defeated Merrimack 6-3 Friday night to keep the Irish and Eagles tied atop the list.)
Yet it was anything but easy for the Irish, who needed a three-goal third period to break out of a tie and ultimately win 4-1 on a snowy, freezing cold evening in which 5,022 fans packed the Notre Dame home facility--on a "white-out" promotion night in which every fan received a white, long-sleeved T-shirt and a white pompon.
Irish coach Jeff Jackson's pregame message to his troops resonated simply: "We need to push the pace. Let's get traffic to the net on this guy. That's our number-one priority."
And, early on, it worked.
Notre Dame spent virtually all of the first two minutes of the contest camped in the Maine end--and when senior winger Thomas DiPauli knocked the puck through Black Bear goaltender Matt Morris barely four minutes in, Irish fans might have relaxed. (And that seemed to be a good sign, considering the Irish had been 15-2-5 when scoring first.)
But the Black Bears bounced back with a goal of their own less than four minutes later, and then the two teams settled in for two full periods--from midway through the first through midway through the third--without either team finding the net.
Jackson kept pounding away with his theme: "Get to the net, get to the net, get to the net," he urged after the first period.
The Irish generally obliged, outshooting the visitors 15-7 in the first period and 16-6 in the second. They just did not have much to show on the scoreboard for their efforts. They had a couple of breakaways--including a great second-period entry pass to a streaking Sam Herr--yet to no avail.
As Jackson noted after the second period, Maine kept hanging around, hanging around and hanging around--waiting for the Irish to make a mistake or something otherwise positive to happen.
"This is where we've got to execute and play our game," he said.
About midway through the third period, the pace revved up. As Notre Dame's Mario Lucia attempted to wheel with the puck in front of the Black Bear net, Maine was called for a hold. The Irish did not convert on the power play, but 25 seconds after the penalty expired Notre Dame rookie Jack Jenkins scored on a backhander for just his second goal of the year and first in more than two months. (He scored the initial Irish tally in their Dec. 10 win at Boston College.)
Then, less then two minutes later--on a bang-bang exchange--sophomore wing Anders Bjork smacked a shot from the left circle that caromed perfectly to Lucia who took it home into a wide-open net. It was 3-1 Irish with less than eight minutes remaining.
The Black Bears pulled Morris with more than three minutes left coming out of a timeout--and DiPauli finished the scoring with an empty-netter with 2:34 to go--taking no chances, skating right into the crease before tapping it in.
The Irish forced Morris to make 39 saves--a few off the 50 he made last Friday night in Maine's 1-0 overtime loss to Providence.
As the Irish make their February push in preparation for the March postseason segment, they took care of business Friday night.
"They were hard to play against for two and a half periods," said Jackson. "That's playoff hockey. It's gonna be like that. You've got to play tough through it in tight situations."
The Irish are making a strong application for a first-weekend bye in the Hockey East playoffs--and their late-season play suggests they'll have a good shot to eventually earn a slot in the NCAA Championship bracket.
Irish sophomore goaltender Cal Petersen needed to make only 21 stops Friday on a relatively quiet night in which Notre Dame controlled the play much of the evening.
Yet, it has to give Jackson and his squad some level of comfort that Petersen now has allowed two goals or fewer in each of his last eight outings.
The Irish play host to the Black Bears again Saturday night--then the schedule ramps up with the final regular-season weekends against dangerous Hockey East foes Providence and Boston University.
All their work from here on out represents deposits into an account they hope will pay big dividends when it counts.
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
-- Troy Murphy: His Relentless Yet Fun-Loving Approach Did the Trick
-- Sunday Brunch: Irish Officially Hot . . . But Shhh
-- Sunday Brunch: Panthers Deliver Solid Impression of Irish
-- 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: