Youthful Notre Dame Finds Its Way at the Right Time
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
MANCHESTER, N.H. In college hockey, success can be measured a variety of ways. Teams have varying goals and ideas of what they can accomplish.
For Notre Dame, the season theme has been exceeding expectations. The Irish had a subpar campaign in 2009-10 compared with the program's recent success. Earning a trip to the Frozen Four with a 2-1 win over New Hampshire Sunday night, it's clear the Irish shattered any semblance of an idea of what they could accomplish.
Expectations for the NCAA tournament certainly changed after Notre Dame was blown-out during the CCHA playoffs by Miami. A loss to Michigan in the third-place game certainly didn't help. But the Irish players turned the pair of losses into a formative experience and motivation to reach the Frozen Four.
"It was really an eye-opener for us," senior captain Joe Lavin said after defeating UNH Sunday night. "We recognized that we didn't want our season to end and we started playing with a lot of poise."
Coach Jeff Jackson readily admits that he was unsure if his team could get back to the tournament, much less the Frozen Four, after making three straight NCAA appearances in 2007-09.
"This team is a work in progress with these young guys," Jackson said. "[In the CCHA playoffs] I thought we were focused but after playing I felt that we were nervous for the wrong reasons."
Though they never doubted their abilities and what they could accomplish, the Irish players know their feats this season represent substantial accomplishment.
"We didn't really have any pressure on us coming into this tournament," sophomore goalie Mike Johnson said, after stopping 37 UNH shots Sunday night. "Everyone was kind of writing us off and talking about everyone else. That kind of gave us and edge and some momentum to build off."
Jackson overhauled the roster in the offseason, bringing in 12 freshmen to replace seven graduates and several early departures — including Ian Cole and Kyle Palmieri who signed with NHL teams. The coach knew he had a talented class, but he had little idea how quickly his team would come together and win hockey games.
"Obviously we're thrilled to death this year to accomplish what we did with so many young kids," Jackson said. "The Frozen Four is an exciting opportunity."
Unlike years past, the coach's two best players are freshmen. Forwards Anders Lee and T.J. Tynan have scored a combined 46 goals and are among the top freshman point producers in the nation. Lee scored two goals to beat Merrimack Saturday night, including the game winner on a play defined by effort and hockey intelligence.
In addition, another freshman made a critical play against UNH. Defenseman Stephen Johns scored from the left point on a one-timer that completely found its way through the Wildcat defense. That goal came after an early period of UNH dominated puck possession and gave the team a 1-0 lead about seven minutes into the game.
As with any young team, the ability to play strongly with a lead is a natural concern. However, the Irish clearly demonstrated their mastery of this skill as Notre Dame improved its record to 22-3-3 when scoring first and still has not lost when leading after two periods.
All of these factors where essentially unknown to Jackson at the beginning of the season. Now, he's answered all of the questions about his team and earned Notre Dame's second Frozen Four appearance in program history.