Jan. 9, 2016
Slowly yet surely, the University of Notre Dame has snuck up on the rest of the college hockey world.
Unranked to start the year, the Irish already have swept a pair of Hockey East series (one on the road) and as of today stand 6-1-2 in league play. All that–including an eye-catching 4-3 come-from-behind victory at currently seventh-rated Boston College to close the December slate of games-has been good enough to vault Jeff Jackson’s squad to 14th and 15th in the latest polls (USA Today and USCHO.com).
The Irish haven’t tasted defeat since the day after they tasted Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing (and that one was to currently fourth-rated Harvard, a team that lost only its second game Friday night). That streak without losing extended itself to seven (best in two years) Friday night with a glossy 7-1 Notre Dame victory on campus over Western Michigan at a sold-out Compton Family Ice Arena.
These two programs are old rivals-only Michigan, Michigan State and Bowling Green have faced off against the Irish more than the Broncos. This was a chance for Jackson’s crew to put a bow on its nonleague schedule before jumping back into Hockey East warfare for the next seven weekends beginning next week at home versus Merrimack.
When Jackson addressed his squad 90 minutes prior to the first puck dropping, he might as well have been quoting from Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great.” While the points the Irish coach emphasized-avoiding costly turnovers, turning up the pressure in the defensive end, getting the puck on net, winning individual battles-surely would be legitimate on any given night, in Jackson’s mind these will be the measuring sticks when playoff time arrives.
“We have to become great at these things,” noted Jackson. “This is the real start of the second half. Let’s finish our nonconference season the right way.”
And early on, it was hard to imagine the Irish playing much better at either end of the ice.
Western Michigan did not manage a shot on goal until eight minutes in. Six minutes into the contest Irish freshman winger Dylan Malmquist drove the puck right down the gut–and when it popped out to the right wing, senior captain Steven Fogarty hammered it home for a 1-0 advantage. At that point Notre Dame led 6-0 in shots.
Eight minutes later senior defender Andy Ryan fired a shot that classmate Sam Herr tipped in from right in front. The home team ripped shot after shot at Bronco goaltender Lukas Hafner, planted Irish players near the crease-and it paid off in big ways. That 2-0 lead prompted a Western Michigan timeout with Notre Dame leading 12-3 in shots.
In the final minute of the opening period, freshman Jack Jenkins tried a wrap-around move, and out of a scramble in the crease sophomore winger Dawson Cook poked it home at the :33.2 mark. The Irish led 3-0 on the board, 17-5 in shots and had dominated every aspect of the contest.
Notre Dame’s best period of the 2015-16 season? It was hard to argue against that. Jackson and his staff had to be excited about what they saw.
Notre Dame’s head coach emphasized the need to play at that level for 60 minutes-and suggested his group could play the second period at the same level, produce only one goal and still earn its stripes.
So, what did the Irish do? They outscored the Broncos 4-0 in period number two:
— Sophomore Anders Bjork, who had the benefit of only a 20-minute midday Friday pregame skate after returning from Finland where he competed with Team USA in the World Junior Championships, showed no ill effects from that schedule. He wheeled impressively around a Bronco defender and scored at 8:22 of the second period to make it 4-0 (and put the shots-on-goal tally at an amazing 29-7).
— The Bjork score (extending his four-game point streak) brought on a new goalie, but Western Michigan’s Collin Olson had no more success. One hundred and two seconds later rookie Andrew Oglevie connected on a rebound.
— With the Irish on the power play, the puck popped out to captain Mario Lucia, and he made it 6-0 at 3:41.
— Malmquist’s tally from in front of the net less than a minute later pushed it to 7-0. At the second intermission, the shots-on-goal column read 38-9.
“What you’re doing is impressive, but we don’t change our game,” said Jackson in the locker room after the second period. “We’ve got 20 minutes ahead of us.”
The Broncos went back with Hafner in goal for the final period, but it took a power play for the visitors to finally light the goal lamp with 7:36 to go in the game. That brought on Chad Katunar in the Irish net to give Cal Petersen a rest. Petersen-the reigning Hockey East defensive player of the week after 92 combined saves last weekend at Denver-on this night profited from a solid team defensive effort in front of him and had to make only 17.
Only a Notre Dame too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty allowed a half-dozen Bronco shots on an unsuccessful Western Michigan power play in the third period, or the differential in that category would have remained stark.
The always even-keeled Jackson wasn’t about to dance an Irish jig in the locker room. What he wanted was to make certain his charges understood that, if they do all the little hockey things they had discussed before the game, that high level of execution can happen more often.
“That was a great job,” he allowed.
Jackson changed up the Irish lines Friday night, separating his seniors over the top three lines-and it paid major dividends.
In an amazing spread-the-wealth finish, all 12 players over the top four Notre Dame lines scored at least one point-led by Malmquist’s goal and two assists (he was voted the number one star of the game), Fogarty’s goal and assist and center Jake Evans’ two assists (they were the second and third stars).
Jackson (and his Irish) know it’s not likely to be anywhere near as simple Saturday night when the two teams square off again 72 miles up the road at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo. Notre Dame has won only once in that setting in its last six attempts.
“Can you handle finding a way to win 1-0 or 2-1?” was Jackson’s challenge to his players in the look ahead to Saturday.
After all, this is a Bronco team that, back in October, twice knocked off then-top-ranked (and 2015 NCAA Frozen Four entrant) Omaha and also boasts a pair of victories over a Bowling Green program that rates 16th this week.
As the veteran Fogarty noted, the Irish upperclassmen understand “some of the toughest games we’ve played have been at Lawson.”
As Jackson and his team took their late-night bus ride to Kalamazoo (interestingly, maybe some karma since, on the same night the Irish extended their unbeaten streak to seven games, the Chicago Blackhawks pushed their victory skein to six?) they at least had to appreciate the potential for this Notre Dame squad.
Friday’s win probably only guarantees a more steeled Bronco unit will take the ice Saturday night-and the Irish still have Hockey East series ahead with third-ranked (and defending NCAA champion) Providence on the road and 11th-rated Boston University at home, plus a single home date versus Boston College.
Yet, for at least a moment, the unflappable Jackson had to mask at least a hint of a smile as he considered the possibilities he viewed in his maturing Irish roster on a single, rainy January evening in South Bend.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
— DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky
— 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview
— Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes
— One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football
— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:
— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner-and Moves On
— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:
— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices: http://www.und.com/genrel/092215aae.html
— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium: http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/092315aag.html
— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father
— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: http://www.und.com/genrel/092115aaa.html