March 11, 2018
By John Heisler
That’s all that mattered Saturday night for University of Notre Dame junior winger Jack Jenkins:
–It didn’t matter that the Irish had won the regular-season Big Ten Conference hockey title outright seemingly months ago.
–It didn’t matter that the Irish already owned four previous wins (the last via a shootout) over 12th-rated Penn State.
–It didn’t matter that two of those Irish victories when the Nittany Lions last played at the Compton Family Ice Arena came in early November and marked victories four and five of Notre Dame’s astounding 16-game win streak.
–It didn’t matter that Jenkins had scored only two goals all season.
–It didn’t matter that the last of those came against Penn State in November, an empty-netter in a 5-3 Irish triumph.
–It didn’t matter that the Irish were coming off a first-round tournament bye while the Nittany Lions were gathering momentum last weekend with a two-game home sweep of fifth-seed Minnesota.
–It didn’t matter that Jenkins hadn’t taken a shot in the game until the final minute of Saturday night’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal.
None of that mattered any longer because this now qualified as playoff hockey.
All that mattered was that Notre Dame’s Dylan Malmquist dug the puck out from behind the net, knocked it to Jenkins, who missed his first shot and then gathered his own rebound and fired in the game-winning goal in the game’s final minute to beat Penn State 3-2 in front of a packed house at Compton.
That means the top-seeded Irish (24-9-2) play host to the Big Ten title game Saturday against second-seeded Ohio State, a 3-2 overtime winner over Michigan in the other conference semifinal.
Few of the fans watching at Compton or on ESPNU figured this one would produce any nail-biting sequences after the way it started.
The Irish broke to first-period 1-0 and 2-1 leads on goals by Jordan Gross and Andrew Peeke. But after Penn State’s tying marker 15:43 into that first period, Irish goaltender Cale Morris proved impenetrable.
The Irish killed off multiple penalties in the second period, but the contest remained an even match.
At one point very late in the second period, both teams had taken 29 shots, both teams had three penalties for six minutes, both teams were one for three on the power play and both teams had blocked seven shots.
That’s how even it was.
It was left for Irish coach Jeff Jackson before the final period to let his charges appreciate what remained at stake:
“The third period has been our period all year long. But you’re going to have to be patient and work hard and you’ll have success.
“You’ve played all year long for this situation. You’ve got 20 minutes. You’ve got the home crowd, you’ve got your own band, you’ve got your own teammates. You’ve got to support each other and finish this thing off.
“Close your eyes and remember who you are. Know what you’ve accomplished this year and go out there and take the next step.”
And so they did.
The Irish peppered Penn State net-minder Peyton Jones for lengthy stretches, yet the longer the third period rolled along the more it felt like sudden death already.
Then, almost out of nowhere came Jenkins, and his game-winner with :30.9 remaining sent the home fans home happy.
“You played a good 60-minute hockey game against a tough team. You deserve a lot of credit. In the end you took advantage of the opportunity,” said Jackson to his squad.
“Every game from here on out is a championship game. Feels good, doesn’t it?”
Morris, who finished with 43 saves, admitted he felt like a five-year-old watching Jenkins win it late.
As Jenkins noted: “That’s what you play for right there. Everyone wants to score that one.”
All of that sets up a Saturday night matchup between the fifth-rated Irish and sixth-ranked Buckeyes (the Irish won three of four regular-season matchups).
The winner earns a trophy.
It’s a hats-and-shirts opportunity.
Jackson and his Irish hope it once again will be the right time (St. Patrick’s Day) and the right place.