June 11, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. –
Already faced with a full slate of games in the country’s strongest and deepest conference, Hockey East, Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson did not dial back the 2015-16 non-conference schedule for the Irish. Notre Dame faces four NCAA Championships-qualifying teams from last March in addition to its rigorous league slate, welcoming three of those foes to the Compton Family Ice Arena. Factoring in the Hockey East league slate, the Irish will play seven of the 16 teams which qualified for last year’s NCAAs.
Among the non-conference highlights for Irish hockey season ticket holders and fans alike are visits from NCAA quarterfinalist Minnesota-Duluth and Big Ten champion Minnesota. Defending ECAC champion Harvard will also return to South Bend for the Shillelagh Tournament after coming to the Compton Family Ice Arena for the NCAA regionals this past March.
Add in road trips to face 2015 NCAA quarterfinalist Denver and Big Ten member Penn State, along with its annual home-and-home series with regional rival Western Michigan and one thing that Notre Dame will not lack when it comes time for the PairWise rankings to assess its NCAA Championships worthiness is strength of schedule points.
In addition to playing seven of its 12 non-conference games against 2015 NCAA participants, the Hockey East schedule pits the Irish against both the defending national champion (Providence) and the 2015 national runner-up (Boston University) the year after an all-Hockey East Frozen Four championship game, fittingly played at TD Garden in Boston. Notre Dame will also bring 2015 NCAA participant Boston College to the Compton Family Ice Arena as a part of its Hockey East slate.
These constant regular season challenges should build up to having a well-prepared squad when the postseason rolls around in March. Hockey East will retain its 2015 playoff format where the top four seeds get a first round bye and the fifth through eighth-best teams play host to a best-of-three series March 4-6. Those winners advance to play the top four seeds on their respective home rinks in another best-of-three series, March 11-13, with the winners advancing to the semifinals and final in at TD Garden, March 18 and 19.
The Irish aim to be selected to head to either Albany, New York, Cincinnati, St. Paul, Minnesota or Worcester, Massachusetts for the NCAA regionals, March 25-27. The 2016 Frozen Four will be played at Amalie Arena in Tampa, home of the NHL Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning, April 7-9.
“All in all, it’s going to be an exciting schedule,” Jackson said.
With five of last year’s 16 NCAA Championships teams heading to the Compton Family Ice Arena in 2015-16 (Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, Harvard, Boston College and Boston University), a series of treats awaits Irish season ticket holders. Minnesota, coached my Notre Dame alumnus Don Lucia, father of Notre Dame leading scorer Mario Lucia, represents one of the sport’s perennial powers on the collegiate level. Minnesota-Duluth is not far removed from its 2011 national championship. The two will provide a potent start to the slate.
“It’s great for our fans that we’re bringing Minnesota back in and, with Minnesota-Duluth, two high-quality programs,” Jackson said. “Anytime we bring in a Big Ten school, it’s a big factor. We’ve developed a pretty good rivalry with Minnesota-Duluth as well since we’ve played them quite regularly over the last several years. They’re a high quality program and won a national championship just a few years ago. They’re one of the top schools in the west and we want to play the top schools.”
One critical element of these series as well is how they stand at a confluence of two areas of concern for Jackson from the 2014-15 season.
“The most important thing is getting off to a better start with our season,” Jackson said. “That, and talking care of business at home has got to be a priority for us.”
The 2014-15 Irish were one of the nation’s top teams down the stretch, claiming a top 10 win three weeks in a row during the month of February. The downfall of a young team a year ago came in its slow start, keyed by a 5-9-0 record for the season in non-conference play, and just an 8-9-3 regular season home record.
Notre Dame is more familiar with its Hockey East surroundings and its member teams as it enters its third year in the prestigious league, but that doesn’t mean that the road ahead gets easy.
“Hockey East is without question the deepest conference,” Jackson said of his peers. “When you consider that New Hampshire finished 11th, gets to the Garden (for the semifinals) and knocks off Providence who ended up winning the national championship – that tells you the quality of the league. Two Hockey East teams (Providence and Boston University) played in the national championship game.
“The teams that we play in Hockey East are as good as any team we play all season long. Every weekend is a challenge. It’s going to be another tough schedule.”
Notre Dame will welcome six league foes to Compton Family Ice Arena (Northeastern, Massachusetts, Merrimack, Boston College, Maine and Boston University). The Irish hit the road for six league weekends, flying to Connecticut, UMass Lowell, Boston College, New Hampshire, Vermont and Providence College. The road slate is particularly treacherous down the stretch as Notre Dame’s last three road trips take it to face the defending national champions in Providence and two notoriously hostile environments in Vermont and New Hampshire.
The Irish will look to get some revenge in a return to UMass Lowell where the team’s 2014-15 season ended in a Game 3 quarterfinal loss to the 2013 and 2014 Hockey East champion River Hawks. For the second year in a row, the Irish face an unconventional series with UConn. In 2014-15, the teams played a complicated home-and-home weekend series with UConn’s game being played 90 minutes from campus in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This year’s weekend set will also be played over two states. The teams will play on Oct. 31 at the XL Center in Hartford, UConn’s standard home ice, and then on Nov. 1 at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York, the new home of the New York Islanders.
“The Hockey East schedule speaks for itself,” Jackson said. “It’s always challenging.”
ON THE ROAD
Some of the challenges of Hockey East travel will be replicated out of conference. Notre Dame will make its first trip to Penn State’s opulent Pegula Ice Arena, Oct. 16-17, opening its season against a rising Big Ten force in the Nittany Lions. The Irish will inaugurate 2016 by facing Denver on Jan. 1-2 at Magness Arena. Regular NCAA Championships participants of late, the Pioneers will provide a stern challenge. Notre Dame concludes its non-conference slate Jan. 9 with a bus trip north to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the travelling end of its annual home-and-home series with Western Michigan at the boisterous Lawson Arena.
“This is our first chance to play at Penn State and I hear that is an impressive environment,” Jackson said. “We’re going to play a tough home-and-home series with Western Michigan. Going to Denver is going to be a challenge as well.
“The non-conference schedule is going to be tough. Playing Harvard the first night of the Shillelagh Tournament will magnify the schedule that much more. It’s as tough of a non-conference schedule as we’ve had.”
The 2014-15 Irish may have had a young core, but it remains largely intact. Sprinkle in another highly-touted freshman class to this mix and Notre Dame is optimistic heading into the season. Whereas the Irish started slow a year ago and were inconsistent at times before catching fire in February, the 2015-16 still-young edition of the team will have a good sense heading in what is required to achieve victories.
Notre Dame returns 15 of the 19 players who saw action in at least 20 games last winter. Mario Lucia, the fourth-leading goal scorer in Hockey East, returns for his senior season and will help guide the Irish attack. Notre Dame will be backstopped again by sophomore goalie Cal Petersen who tied for the Hockey East lead with four shutouts last year as a freshman and picked up a spot on the league’s all-rookie team. In front of Petersen, a maturing blueline corps will include sophomore Jordan Gross who led all freshmen nationally with both his 21 assists and 28 points in 2014-15.
“We have to hope that this young group from last year has grown up a little bit,” Jackson said. “We’re still going to have 16 underclassmen. It’s not like we’re going to be a junior and senior-laden team. We’ve got a great senior class that will give us leadership, but it’s going to be about those sophomores – the freshmen from last year – and how much growth they’ve had. Our starting goaltender (Petersen) and three of our top six defensemen (Gross, Like Ripley and Tony Bretzman) are in that group. It’s going to be a challenge and we’ll have to acclimate early on because there are no easy outs in this schedule.”
The team returns to the ice in September with the first true glimpse of the 2015-16 Irish coming on Oct. 9 when the team welcomes the University of Guelph to the Compton Family Ice Arena for a preseason exhibition contest.