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Oh, So Close

Editor’s Note: The following 2017-18 Notre Dame hockey retrospective will appear in this week’s Gameday Magazine, which will be available for purchase on campus Saturday during the Notre Dame-Ball State football game. Last season’s Irish hockey team, which won the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships and was national runner-up, will be honored during the first half of the game.

As the bus carrying the Notre Dame hockey team back from Chicago’s United Center and the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four made its way across Northern Indiana early in the morning hours of April 7, veteran coach Jeff Jackson already was looking toward the future.
Just a few hours earlier, season No. 12 under Jackson at Notre Dame had come to an end after a convincing 6-1 loss to eventual NCAA champion Denver. As the bus headlights showed the way along the Indiana Toll Road during the hour and 45-minute ride back to the campus and the Compton Family Ice Arena, the Notre Dame coach had reached one conclusion.
Never one to panic, the pragmatic Jackson — a backup goaltender under NCAA championship coach Ron Mason at Michigan State and later himself the head coach of Lake Superior State’s two NCAA championship teams in the early 1990s — realized what his program needed to make a run at a fourth Frozen Four appearance and its first national title during his tenure at Notre Dame.
To Jackson, it was simple.
Two more victories.
After watching film of the loss, Jackson knew where the focus for him and associate head coaches Paul Pooley and Andy Slaggert needed to be going ahead for a program that would lose its two top players early to the National Hockey League — goaltender and captain Cal Petersen (Los Angeles Kings), and forward and leading scorer Anders Bjork (Boston Bruins).
“Fundamentals,” Jackson said. “(Denver) certainly had great players, but I thought their fundamentals were much better than ours. That became the emphasis by me and I think the players bought into it.”
Did they ever. Notre Dame finished 28-10-2, including 17-6-1 in its first season in the Big Ten to win the regular-season and playoff titles before raising the NCAA East Regional banner.
Led by the quiet captain, senior center Jake Evans, the Irish did improve in the fundamentals, going from 122th in 2016-17 (.856) to second (.894) in penalty-kill percentage (.894) and from 30th (.185) to seventh (.237) in power-play percentage. They won 14 of 18 games decided by one goal, which speaks volumes about their discipline and confidence.
“They came to the rink every day ready to work, with smiles on their faces,” Jackson said. “They had a lot of energy and a positive outlook. Of course, winning does that, but I really loved the personality of that team. It certainly was the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Making the move from Hockey East back to the more geographically friendlier Big Ten Conference, Notre Dame won its first 13 games in the league during a school-record 16-game winning streak backstopped by eventual sophomore All-America goaltender Cale Morris, who saw action in just one period as a freshman backup to Petersen but worked on his game religiously, as Jackson often credited.
 “We were kind of living in the moment, enjoying it, just sticking to the process, coming to the rink every day with the mindset that we hadn’t really achieved anything yet, that we still had a long way to go as a team,” said the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Morris of Larkspur, Colorado, who won the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender. He also was a Hobey Baker Award finalist as player of the year following a season during which he went 27-8-1 for a .764 winning percentage (fourth nationally) with a .944 save percentage (second) and 1.94 goals-against average (eighth) with four shutouts (12th).
Morris was never better than the Feb. 2-3 series at Penn State. After making a personal-best 48 saves in Notre Dame’s 5-3 opening victory, Morris, having fun with the Penn State student section, came back with 55 stops in a 2-2 tie, including a penalty shot stop during the overtime in which the Irish were outshot 5-0.
“An awesome place to play at,” Morris said. “That trip got us some momentum back, helped us to get back to playing the right way (after losing two of three previous games). It was a big weekend for us.”
During the streak, the Irish had a multi-week stay atop the national rankings. It led to the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament that started with one-goal victories over Michigan Tech and Providence in the NCAA East Regional at Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Then 363 days following their loss to Denver, the Irish returned to the Frozen Four, this time at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and prevailed over Big Ten rival Michigan, 4-3, on Evans’ second goal of the game scored with 5.2 seconds remaining in regulation to reach the championship.
“I just remember I was gasping for air but knew there wasn’t much time left,” said Toronto (Ontario) native Evans, a 6-1, 190-pound center who earned a degree from the Mendoza College of Business after leading the Irish in scoring with 46 points on 13 goals and 33 assists.
“I gave the puck to Cam (Morrison), who made a really good play and (then) threw it to the middle of the ice. Luckily, I got a little something on it,” understated Evans. He will be in training camp with the Montreal Canadiens as one of eight Irish players signing professional contracts following the season — joining graduating senior defenseman Jordan Gross (NHL’s Arizona Coyotes), graduating forward Bo Brauer (ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays), junior forward Andrew Oglevie (Buffalo Sabres), junior defenseman Dennis Gilbert (Chicago Blackhawks), senior forward Dawson Cook (ECHL’s Florida Everblades), senior defenseman Justin Wade (ECHL’s Florida Everblades) and senior defenseman Luke Ripley (ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits).
As Evans skated back to a wildly celebrating Irish bench, Jackson focused on the final seconds remaining, which his Irish calmly navigated to get to the championship game less than two days later against Minnesota Duluth, the “hometown” favorite (the campus is 151 miles away) and “Cinderella Story” team (the Bulldogs just barely got the 16th and final spot into the field).
Duluth got two first-period goals against Morris, who had 26 saves in the first two periods, and withstood a second-period, power-play goal by junior Andrew Oglevie for a 2-1 triumph and its second NCAA title. Ironically, the first (in 2011) also came in Saint Paul, not far from where the patriarch of the modern era, the late Charles “Lefty” Smith, grew up and coached before coming to Notre Dame in the late 1960s and eventually painting his name on the ice on which Jackson’s teams play and practice at Compton.
Another climb to college hockey’s summit already has begun. Besides Morris, Jackson’s 2018-19 team returns a solid corps of defensemen in Matt Hellickson, Tory Dello, Andrew Peeke and Bobby Nardella plus forwards Matt Steeves, Cal Burke, Colin Theisen, Mike O’Leary, Joe Wegwerth, Dylan Malmquist, Jack Jenkins and Morrison. It also features nine incoming freshmen led by defensemen Spencer Stastney and forwards Jake Pivonka, Alex Steeves (Matt’s brother), Cam Burke (Cal’s brother) and Graham Slaggert (Andy’s son). Pivonka (New York Islanders) and Stastney (Nashville Predators) were taken in the recent NHL Draft.
The Irish are preparing for an Oct. 7 exhibition game against the U.S. National Team Development Program squad at the Lefty Smith Rink before a season-opening trip to Erie, Pennsylvania, to play host Mercyhurst in the Ice Breakers Tournament Oct. 12. The season also includes a home series with Duluth (Oct. 26-27) before the Big Ten portion of the schedule opens Nov. 2-3 with a weekend visit from likely Big Ten favorite Ohio State.
One more victory, this time in the 2019 Frozen Four championship game at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York.
Just one more.
John Fineran is a 1974 Notre Dame graduate with a degree in American Studies with emphasis in Communication Arts. He has worked for the South Bend Tribune (1978-2000) and other media outlets, including currently the Associate Press, and has won national awards for his coverage of a variety of sports including golf, auto racing, football, baseball, basketball, horse racing, fishing and, yes, dog dock jumping.