Dec. 17, 2017
By John Heisler
Maybe the absolute worst thing that has happened to the University of Notre Dame hockey team so far in 2017-18 is that the Irish don't play for three weekends.
The snow is flying these days in South Bend, but the Compton Family Ice Arena is relatively deserted because the Irish have been busy this past week with final exams and now they head home for a lengthy break in advance of their next game Jan. 5 at Michigan.
Normally a nice holiday vacation would be welcome and, in this case, it's certainly well-deserved.
But when your team has won 13 straight games, eight of those against teams currently rated in the top 15 of the USCHO.com poll, an argument can be made that Notre Dame wishes it could play just about every day. That's how well it's been going for Irish head coach Jeff Jackson's squad.
As the old Jerry Reed song from 1971 goes, "When you're hot, you're hot."
Imagine Jackson this week, hidden away in his secret Compton laboratory, trying to figure a way to corral all the things that have gone right for his team so far this fall, bottle them up and sprinkle them like pixie dust over his roster when the Irish re-gather later this month.
Jackson has no particular explanation for why the wins have come in bunches in 2017. Right now, in one sense, he's just trying stay out of the way and let the good times roll.
"We couldn't have asked for a much better first half," says senior forward and captain Jake Evans (he ranks eighth nationally in points per game at 1.4).
"It's just been a lot of fun. Guys have been enjoying themselves, enjoying coming to the rink, enjoying road trips and everything like that. It's great. But, if we don't build off this in the second half and work on getting better, it's going to be meaningless at the end of the year."
But no hockey team starts a season 16-3-1 by accident, so let's look at some of the reasons the third-rated Irish have taken the Big Ten Conference--and arguably the college hockey world in general--by storm:
1. Goaltending has been off the charts. In hockey a team
almost always has a chance to win if it can count on solid goaltending--and
that certainly has been the case for Notre Dame in 2017-18. While most
Irish fans likely rued the day that Cal Petersen opted to turn pro last
summer instead of returning to playing for the Irish, sophomore Cale Morris
was biding his time and waiting for his turn. Morris played only a single
period in an October game as a freshman, and this season Jackson opted to
split the weekend goalie assignments (with freshman Dylan St. Cyr) through
much of October.
"We saw Cale last year in practice and he always worked hard and wanted to grow as a player," says Evans. "We knew the skill and confidence he had. And that helped build our confidence over the summer going into this season. He still has that same attitude. If he had a game or two that wasn't as planned, he was looking to work hard and grow in practice. Cale just got on a run that is kind of unheard of. He's been standing on his head and you can't take him out."
2. The Irish have been good closers. Chalk it up to strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski's work--or maybe credit the Notre Dame players themselves with sticking to the game plan. But, the fact is the Irish have been great down the stretch in games, outscoring opponents 55-27 in the second and third periods combined, including 27-14 in the crucial third periods. Jackson's crew has won four times after trailing after the opening period, six times in one-goal games and 11 times when the margin has been two goals or fewer.
3. The Irish got healthy after October. Early injuries prevented Notre Dame from achieving the continuity it wanted on the offensive end. Junior forward Dylan Marmquist (four goals, three assists) missed the first three series of the year with a lower body injury. Junior forward Andrew Oglevie (third on the team in scoring with seven goals, nine assists) sat out the Omaha and Ohio State series. Junior forward Joe Wegwerth (three goals, two assists) missed the Omaha, Ohio State and Minnesota series and two other games with a lower body injury. And rookie forward Pierce Crawford was injured in Notre Dame's exhibition game against the USNTDP and sat out the first four series. It's safe to say the level of practice has been elevated since their return, as has the Irish game production--which all has coincided with Notre Dame's win streak. Probably no accident.
"It definitely helps having all those guys back in the lineup, especially from a depth standpoint," says Evans, who leads the country in scoring with 28 points--seven goals and a nation-leading 21 assists--and also outpaces every other player in the country in face-offs won (277). "It's healthy competition in practice to see who gets those extra minutes in a game.
"And we've been forming an identity lately that maybe we did not have at the beginning of the year. We had some 6-4 games early that you're not going to see any more. We had some high-scoring games that weren't going to help our team in the long run. Now you're seeing wins coming 1-0, 2-1, 3-2--we've really focused on the defensive end. And that's helped transition into our offense.
"Our defense is an older group that's been around a lot. Lots of guys are stepping up. It's tough to get past them in practice. That's helped push this win streak."
The Irish rank fifth nationally in scoring margin (plus-1.35 goals), fourth in assists (116) and 12th in scoring offense (3.35 goals per game).
4. Big Ten credibility is at stake. Considering this is Notre Dame's first season in the Big Ten Conference after a shift from Hockey East, the Irish couldn't have picked a better time for a hot start to build some credibility with their new partner. In fact, the Irish have dominated the league--already winning 10 conference games (Ohio State is second at 5-4-1 in league play). In fact, the four ranked Big Ten teams the Irish have swept--all four of them ranked in the top 15 in this week's USCHO.com poll--have a combined 17-20-4 conference record. It's even more impressive considering Notre Dame is playing against some new teams in foreign arenas. No Big Ten team has started 10-0 in league play until now.
"It seems like every team we've played in the Big Ten has been ranked, and they've got some historic, tough barns to play in," says Evans. "Michigan State was a packed crowd, and Wisconsin is a loud, intimidating place. Our team has done well weathering the storm the first 10 minutes, settling the crowd down and then you try to build on your own game. We've been very focused on the road."
5. All things considered, Notre Dame probably expected to be here. While the offseason departures of big-name players like Petersen and Anders Bjork may have dominated the headlines for fans, don't forget this is a Notre Dame program that played in the NCAA Frozen Four last April. So don't expect the Irish players to be shocked at what has transpired. At one point in late October the Irish record stood at 3-3-1. Since then Notre Dame has been unbeatable.
The numbers tell it all in any analysis of the Irish first half:
--Notre Dame's 13-game active win streak is the longest in the country coming into play this weekend. Clarkson is next at 11 in a row and no one else has won more than six straight. No team in the country has more than Notre Dame's 16 wins.
--It's been 34 years since Notre Dame had a longer victory streak (15 games from November 1983 through January 1984, and the Irish actually competed as a club team that season). No Jeff Jackson-coached Notre Dame team had won more than 10 in succession (February and March 2009).
--The Irish play smart. Notre Dame ranks sixth nationally in fewest penalties taken at 9.4 minutes per game (83 for 188 minutes). Meanwhile, the Irish stand eighth in penalty kills at .870 (60 of 69). And the Irish have prospered despite a relatively low number of power-play opportunities (64 compared, for example, to 85 for top-rated Clarkson).
--The Irish are road dogs. Notre Dame is the only team in the country without a road defeat in 2017. The Irish are 8-0-0 away from home so far, including pairs of wins over ranked teams from Ohio State and Wisconsin and in front of vocal, rowdy crowds of 9,216 and 11,934 fans last weekend in Madison. Notre Dame now has played 66 games in its hockey history against Wisconsin but had never swept the Badgers in Madison until last weekend.
Evans loves the fact his team didn't flinch Friday night in Madison (the Irish scored three times in the final 13 minutes of the third period to win 3-2).
"Even when we get behind, guys don't get down. The bench is positive and the guys are ready to get back out there and get that next one," he says. "Last year we'd get down and sometimes the other team would keep coming and coming. This year we push back.
"The second night against Minnesota really stood out. We had a really strong third period and just took it over (the Irish won 5-2 after two goals in the third) and that's what good teams need to do. And in that first game at Wisconsin even down 2-0 there was a strong belief we were going to come back. There was just a lot of belief in that room."
Evans understands his understated head coach is unlikely to be found doing handstands no matter how long the win streak extends. Yet he and his teammates have found ways to embrace their success.
"You need to be excited about this. It's tough to win in college hockey, especially on the road. We should be enjoying this, at least for the next couple of weeks. But things can turn around quickly if guys don't focus on hockey over the break. We can't have the attitude that we just can't lose. We've got to keep up the intensity and the focus.
"We're definitely happy, we're definitely excited with where we've started. We've put ourselves in a great spot. But it's not going to mean anything if we don't do something with it in the second half."
And Evans knows there are improvements to be made:
"The first thing would be our starts. We've had a few games where maybe we've relied on Cale too much. We can start stronger and get more shots on net early. There are definitely things to work on."
The Irish to date haven't been flustered by much. And consider that other Notre Dame teams to end up in the Frozen Four started 17-5 (through the end of December) in 2008, 12-6-2 in 2011 and 10-6-2 a year ago.
But with another full round of Big Ten play remaining, that holiday break will include plenty of visions of not just sugarplums but also road swings to Ann Arbor, Minneapolis and State College.
Count on Jackson, Evans and the rest of the Irish to do their parts to be up to those challenges.
With or without a smidgen of that pixie dust.