Feb. 14, 2015
Entering the toughest stretch of its regular season, the University of Notre Dame hockey team countered with toughness.
Notre Dame's final three series of the season are against No. 3 Boston University, No. 10 Providence, and No. 11 Boston College.
Friday night Notre Dame freshman goalie Cal Petersen made split-second diving blocks and vicious stabs to nab the puck, letting Providence know the youthful Fighting Irish are growing up. Petersen ended up with 38 saves and, more importantly, the shutout as the Irish started their gut-check finish to the regular season with a 2-0 victory against the Friars.
Notre Dame's victory pushed the Irish into a tie for third place in Hockey East, as the Irish fight to earn a first-round bye in the league playoffs. The top four teams in the Hockey East standings earn byes and play host to second-round action. The next four teams in the standings play host to first-round series against the teams that finish in places nine through 12.
"That was a tough game for us," Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. "We weathered the storm several times. We got great goal-tending. Getting the win is really important for our confidence, to be able to play a Top 10 team and get out of it alive. There were obviously some scary moments."
Notre Dame's confidence is growing at a critical time. The Irish have shaken off a mostly January stretch of 1-6-1 to put together a four-game unbeaten streak. The Irish have won three games and tied one in their last four games.
If Notre Dame is to emerge as a force in the Hockey East playoffs, the Irish will need the freshmen to continue packing a punch.
"I think they're figuring it out," Jackson said of his club. "They're making better puck decisions. We needed to be better on the walls (against Providence). Their defensemen are very aggressive on the walls. We couldn't get out of our zone for periods at a time. That's where we have to have a little bit more poise and be a little stronger on the walls with support. I think they have grown up. Some of the younger guys are playing better minutes for us. Some of the veterans are stepping up in key areas. The combination of that has been positive."
Petersen's play has been critical to the Irish surge. Petersen has stopped 81 of the last 82 shots he's faced in his last three games.
"He played well last weekend, too," Jackson said about Petersen's play. "He's feeling pretty good right now. He's seeing the puck real well right now. That's half the battle. We were fortunate with some bounces at times, but he made the saves, especially in those offensive zone situations where they had sustained pressure on the power play. He made some big saves.
"I've spent a lot of time trying to get him to play with more control, be in more control," Jackson added about Petersen. "If you control rebounds, it's half the battle. Any shots taken from the perimeter, you can't be putting them out front. He's doing a better job with that. The next big thing for him to learn is consistency. He is a freshman. He's had a couple of good games in a row. We need to see if he can do it on a nightly basis. That's the next big thing for him."
Jackson likes the way the freshmen have stepped up their game.
"I've seen growth, especially in a couple of young defensemen," Jackson said. "Jordan Gross--his defensive game has gotten better. Luke Ripley is playing with more confidence back there. I think getting Eric Johnson back has helped us with a little more experience back there. It's given us the ability to not to have to play Robbie Russo 30 minutes a night, which keeps him fresher for later in the game and the second night.
"Up front I think Anders Bjork has found a home with Vinny Hinostroza's line. Those guys seem to have a little chemistry. I thought Connor Hurley and Jake Evans both did a good job for us. There are two freshmen playing against three seniors most of the night, three guys who are 24 years old. They did a good job."
While the freshmen are getting a grip on the college game, the key players in how the Irish will handle the closing stretch and playoffs are the upperclassmen.
"It's their turn," Jackson said. "Guys like (Peter) Schneider, Sammy Herr, Robbie Russo, (Steven) Fogerty, obviously, are an important part of that group. Austin Wuthrich, Eric Johnson ... they're all huge components to the demeanor of the team. Throughout the difficult times that we've had, they stayed positive and they kept working. We're far from being through this. It doesn't get any easier."
Hinostroza said the Irish have refocused as they enter a challenging regular-season finish.
"I think we dropped all our expectations for our line," Hinostroza said. "I think we had a lot coming in at the beginning of the season. I think we dropped that and got back to our game, working hard, making plays. I think we've been really successful the past few weekends for that reason.
"I think the chemistry within the team, within the locker room is at an all-time high right now. We had a lot of freshmen coming in. It's hard for them to get into team. I feel like, now, going into this stretch, everyone is coming together. It's going to be good for going forward."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent