March 18, 2018
By John Heisler
Notre Dame’s hockey affiliation with the Big Ten Conference is producing space problems around the Compton Family Ice Arena.
After the third-ranked Irish stormed through their opening of the Big Ten regular season with 13 consecutive league victories (16 overall), Jeff Jackson’s crew clinched the conference’s regular-season trophy in a February 9 home win over Ohio State.
That level of success allowed Notre Dame to post a banner in the southeast corner of Compton on senior night in late February.
It took nearly 10 minutes of an overtime late Saturday night, but the Irish claimed a second league trophy — this time for a hard-earned 3-2 victory over fourth-ranked Ohio State in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament.
Somewhere down the road a second banner will be hoisted for that achievement.
And now the most serious part of the postseason stands in full view.
The Irish, top-seeded in the Big Ten Tournament, played one of their better periods of the season to start the game.
Senior forward Bo Brauer redirected an Irish shot into the net less than five minutes into the action for an early Notre Dame lead. Then with 5:30 remaining in the period, a power-play goal by freshman Matt Hellickson (with assists from Cal Burke and Andrew Peeke) made it 2-0.
The St. Patrick’s Day party at Compton was in full swing.
“Let’s not lose our intensity coming back,” Jackson told his team at the first intermission. “We’ve got to stay with the game plan for 60 minutes. There’s too much at stake. They’re going to come back with a push — let’s go after them and push ourselves.”
As Jackson predicted, the Buckeyes poured 17 shots at Irish net-minder Cale Morris (the Big Ten MVP) in the second period. Brendon Kearney’s redirection of a big Matt Miller slap shot cut the Ohio State deficit to 2-1 just 6:21 into that second period.
Then Miller, Ohio State’s sophomore defenseman, temporarily hushed the crowd and threw a blanket over the party by firing the tying goal into the upper right corner of the net 1:07 in the third period.
Jackson could only hope a flurry of Notre Dame shots late in that third period might regain some momentum for his Irish entering extra time.
“It’s about intestinal fortitude right now,” he said. “You have the ability to determine the outcome of this story. You have the pen in your hands. In overtime every shot is a good shot. Are you willing to do what’s necessary to win this game?
“I want to win this game on our toes. Go after these guys. Let’s win it in the first 10 minutes of this overtime.”
Dennis Gilbert wowed the fans about four minutes into the extra session when he bounced a shot off the crossbar.
Morrison retrieved the pass in stride, used an Ohio State defender as a shield and buried the game-winner at 9:23.
Make room for another banner.
“We were on our heels for a little while and then we came back late in the third period,” Jackson told his happy players after it ended — with the Big Ten Tournament trophy sitting on the carpet in the middle of the locker room.
“It’s a heck of an accomplishment what you did in the Big Ten this year. Congratulations to this senior class on their last game at Compton this year. You couldn’t go out a better way.”
Morrison, Morris (41 saves) and defenseman Jordan Gross made the all-tournament team — with Morris named the outstanding player.
“Enjoy this, but there are even more prizes ahead,” added Jackson. “You earned this, but we’ve got a lot ahead of us yet. You did a tremendous job tonight, you deserve a lot of credit. Now let’s take another step.”
The Irish veterans since last April have been working to eliminate the frustration of a one-sided loss to eventual champion Denver after Notre Dame reached the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four.
Jackson’s charges did all that was required to earn a number-one NCAA regional seed and the second national seed this time around — with his Irish on Sunday assigned to the Bridgeport (Connecticut) East Regional bracket where they will face Michigan Tech (WCHA champion at 22-16-5) at 3 p.m. Friday on ESPN2.
The other Bridgeport pairing is two seed Providence (23-11-4) versus three seed Clarkson (23-10-6).
The top four national seeds are St. Cloud State (25-8-6), Notre Dame, Cornell and Ohio State — with the Irish the only team to win both their regular-season and conference postseason tournament titles.
Jackson and his Irish now put that conference hardware and the banners that go with it in their back pockets.
Those NCAA challenges lie dead ahead.