NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The University of Notre Dame hockey team has been here before.
For the second straight season, the Fighting Irish are heading to the Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament championship game, and they got there thanks to another thrilling postseason overtime victory. It was a situation they found themselves in five times in 2018, when they strung together five conference and NCAA tournament wins either in the game’s last minute or in sudden death.
Funny, then, that the hero of Saturday’s 2-1 OT victory over Minnesota in the Big Ten semifinal at Compton Family Ice Arena was none other than a freshman in forward Michael Graham.
Not if you’re accounting for culture.
Graham picked the right time to record the first game winner of his career when, just 53 seconds into overtime — and 22 seconds into an Irish power play — he took Andrew Peeke’s pass from behind the net, curled around the net and flipped a shot over Gopher goaltender Mat Robson’s blocker shoulder.
“It just kind of popped out (of the corner) and popped onto my stick,” Graham said. “I saw an opening, got lucky and shot it, beating him over the blocker, short side.”
Lucky, sure. But when the moment presented itself, Graham didn’t blink.
When weighing the consequence of Notre Dame’s semifinal victory, consider last year’s impressive streak:
- The Irish defeated Penn State 3-2 in the Big Ten semifinal when Jack Jenkins scored with 31 seconds remaining in the third period.
- In the Big Ten Championship game, Cam Morrison delivered the knockout punch to Ohio State, scoring 9:23 into overtime to give the Irish a 3-2 victory and a sweep of the conference regular-season and tournament titles.
- The Irish again needed overtime in the first round of the NCAA Championship against Michigan Tech, but Jordan Gross came up with the winning score at 16:24 of the extra session to give ND a 4-3 victory.
- In the NCAA regional final against Providence, Dylan Malmquist slid his shot between the near post and the goaltender’s skate to lift the Irish to a 2-1 win with 27 seconds left in regulation.
- Facing rival Michigan in the national semifinal, Jake Evans went five-hole on Michigan goalie Hayden Lavigne with 5.2 seconds remaining in the third to give the Irish a 4-3 victory and send them to the national championship game.
Certainly, the Irish would likely rather not resort to such heart-stopping finishes every night. Still, the knowledge that the poise that so defined the 2018 national runners-up still lives on in 2019 has to have head coach Jeff Jackson feeling good as the Irish seek their second straight conference tournament trophy.
“I challenged them to be patient,” Jackson said. “It’ll be no different from here on out. Patience just means good puck decisions, not trying to make high-risk plays. That’s challenging for a young team, but we’ve also got a lot of veterans who have gone through this before who paved the way. But we started four freshmen (forwards Graham Slaggert, Jake Pivonka and Alex Steeves and defenseman Spencer Stastney) against one of the top lines in the country.”
Jackson also tinkered with his two other top lines, swapping Dylan Malmquist for Cam Morrison on the same line as Graham and Mike O’Leary. The change seemed to spark the Irish offense as Morrison scored two minutes into the game on a two-on-one break with O’Leary and Graham assisting. The Irish also outshot the Gophers 17-5 in the first period.
Just as he figured in to both Irish scoring plays Saturday, Graham has played every bit the veteran role since the calendar turned to January. He scored his first career goal in an Oct. 19 win over Omaha, but didn’t find the net again until he did so twice when the Irish defeated Wisconsin 6-4 on Jan. 18 in Madison. Since, he’s become the Irish leader in goals scored (12) and is fifth on the team in points (21). He has twice been named a Big Ten star of the week, was named the NCAA Second Star of the Week on Jan. 22 and is a finalist for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
It just took a semester to adjust.
“I played USHL, and obviously high school is not nearly as fast, not as much hitting. You kind of just go out there and play. It takes a while to get used to the (college) game, but I think I’ve done that here in the second half.”
The 2019 version of the Irish may have a different cast, but if Saturday’s outcome was any indication, they’re poised to carry on that culture of calm-under-pressure that has led them back to this familiar place.