Freshman goaltender Cal Petersen brings his puck-stopping skills to Notre Dame from the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks.

IRISH EXTRA: Rookie Class Makes for Irish Hockey Wild Card in 2014-15

Sept. 30, 2014

Notre Dame, Ind. – During a recent scrimmage, University of Notre Dame hockey captain Sam Herr zeroed in on a chance to light up a freshman goalie and light the lamp. The Irish left wing saw an empty-net chance against rookie Cal Petersen and fired away.

“I thought I had him,” Herr said of pouncing on a scoring opportunity against Petersen. “I fired the shot, and it’s not in the net. I’m looking around, like, what happened?”

What happened is the lanky Petersen shifted into grand-theft hockey mode. The 6-foot-1 freshman from Waterloo, Iowa, took advantage of his long wingspan and stretched out to snag the puck, robbing Herr of the goal.

So far, only the sounds of skates slashing the ice and sticks smacking against pucks have been ricocheting around the Compton Family Ice Arena. But the way Petersen and nine other freshmen have been standing out in preseason practices, Compton could be filled with the roar of Irish fans this season.

Coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish, ranked 10th in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine preseason poll, open at 5:05 p.m. EDT Sunday with an exhibition game against the University of Waterloo. The puck drops on the regular season Oct. 10 when the Irish host the rugged Ice Breaker Tournament. Play starts at 2:05 p.m. Oct. 10 when No. 1 Minnesota tangles with Minnesota Duluth. Notre Dame takes the ice at 7:35 p.m. Oct. 10 against Rensselaer. Action in the Ice Breaker continues Oct. 12.

Herr said Petersen can be special for the Irish.

“Cal kind of reminds me of a taller Jonathan Quick,” Herr said, referencing the goalie who helped the Los Angeles Kings hoist the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. “You don’t too often see goalies being able to spread out like Cal can. He’s a flexible goalie. He covers a lot of the net, the way he brings angles. He moves well for a tall guy. I’ve never seen anybody stretch out like he can, and he’s a lefty, too, so that throws everything off.”

Petersen, named USA Hockey’s junior goalie of the year last season and a gold-medal winner with the USA World Junior Challenge team, is part of a heralded 10-player Irish freshman class. Last season, the Irish had five freshmen on the roster and a senior-laden lineup. This season’s first-year Irish crew will be counted on heavily to help replace 11 seniors off last season’s 23-15-2 club.

Jackson said while the Irish return a number of talented players, the freshmen will need to make an impact, and they’re more than capable of putting punch into the Fighting Irish attack.

Petersen and Connor Hurley, a 6-2, 178-pound center who continues the proud Irish pipeline from Edina, Minn., headline the freshman class. Both were drafted by Buffalo in the 2013 NHL entry draft. Hurley was picked in the second round, and Petersen was selected in the fifth round.

“It’s going to be really critical on the back end, whether it’s in goal or if it’s on defense,” Jackson said of the freshmen stepping up. “All of the freshmen are capable. Some are projected to be more projects, but we have high expectations for two or three of the forwards, and two or three of the defensemen to step up and contribute right away, and they’re going to have to do it in key situations.”

Nathan Billitier, Anders Bjork, Bo Brauer, Tony Bretzman, Dawson Cook, Jake Evans, Jordan Gross and Luke Ripley also arrive at Notre Dame with impressive junior hockey credentials.

“We have a few true freshmen, but we also have a number of kids who played two or three years of junior hockey, so they’re not all 18-year-old freshmen,” Jackson said.

“That was beneficial to us last time we had a big freshman class. We tried to ensure that some guys played an extra year of junior hockey. It’s not the same level, quite, as college hockey, but it does give them a little bit more physical development, a little bit more physical maturity, and emotionally, it’s better, too. They come in a little bit better prepared to step into the college game.”

Notre Dame’s Class of 2014 was that last big freshmen class, and that group brought youthful exuberance to the Irish when they were freshmen.

“Our coaching staff has talked about it a number of times, that that was one of our more enjoyable years as coaches, just because there was so much enthusiasm and energy because of the young guys,” Jackson said. “They invigorated us as coaches, they invigorated the upperclassmen. That group of upperclassmen did a great job, too, with that group.”

Petersen and talented Chad Katunar, a 6-5, 231-pound sophomore from Victoria, B.C., give the Irish a pair of gifted goaltenders who may platoon this season.

Petersen said his competitiveness will help him adjust to the college game.

“I’m a naturally competitive kid,” Petersen said. “I’m going to make sure I work hard every day. I think that translates from practice into games. We’re arguably stepping into the most competitive conference in college hockey (Hockey East). To match that level of competitiveness and talent and energy level on the ice every night is going to be important. It’s going to take some time to adjust, but I feel like I’m already fully adjusted to the shot speed and everything here.”

So far, Petersen has been able to fight back the nervousness of playing for new coaches and playing with new teammates. Confidence and consistency are key weapons for Petersen’s early success.

“I trust in myself, I trust in my ability, I trust the guys who are around me right now,” Petersen said. “I think all together we can put a really good product on the ice. I’m just going to do the best I can to help that out.”

Hurley said coming in during the summer has given the Irish rookies a chance to learn from the upperclassmen and to adjust to the demands of classwork and conditioning. The way Jackson has acclimation set up for the freshmen, they’re ready to focus on making an impact by the time the season rolls around.

“I think I just have to bring my skills, game in and game out,” Hurley said. “Coach Jackson has been talking to me about being consistent. Definitely, coming in as a freshman, you have to be consistent to stay in the lineup. I have high expectations for myself, and I want to do everything I can to make plays and score goals.” Irish captain Steven Fogarty expects the freshmen to make big contributions.

“Obviously, the first game will be an adjustment,” Fogarty said. “I think it’s just a matter of experience and confidence. The freshmen are all here for a reason. They can play with anyone in the conference. Once we get this season rolling, once they get some games under their belts, I think they’ll be just fine.”

Vince Hinostroza, a 5-9, 180-pound center, thrived last season as a freshman. He scored eight goals and dished out 24 assists, finishing third on the team with 32 points.

“You just have to have an open mind and get ready to get better every day,” Hinostroza said of forging freshman success. “It’s definitely a learning process the first year. If you come here thinking you’re going to have success automatically, it’s not going to work. If you work hard every day, you’re going to have success.

“A big challenge is balancing school and hockey. Plus, the speed of the game is a lot more than junior hockey or high school. The game is a lot faster, and the guys are a lot stronger. But we have a great workout program, so that will really help the freshmen.”

For Jackson, the Ice Breaker Tournament is a great way to see where the freshmen stand.

“You have to throw them into situations where they have to respond,” said Jackson, who expects to use the freshmen in critical situations early on. “The interesting thing is, the last time we went through the big (freshman) class, you really had no choice but to throw them into those situations. You only have so many veterans, and you can’t play them the entire game.

“Maybe it’s a good thing that we have so many freshmen, because it forces me into playing them and putting them into those situations–and it allows them to build confidence and play in those types of environments.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent