A Matter of Trust
Notre Dame Developing Together, and Togetherness, at the Right Time
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson thinks pretty highly of Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin and his prolific top line.
The remaining Bulldogs have a fan in Jackson as well. Despite watching his team battle its way through the Northeast Regional, defeating Merrimack and New Hampshire in one-goal games, Jackson understands the danger the Bulldogs pose, especially for his remarkably young team.
Those two games in Manchester, N.H., that resulted in the Irish's second Frozen Four trip in the last four years, showed Jackson a few things about his team that boosted his confidence entering Thursday's national semifinal. Still, the Irish are young, and, against an opponent as explosive as UMD, young players can forget the system, the cohesion and the mentality that got them this far.
To prepare for UMD's top line of wingers Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine and center Jack Connolly, Jackson spent a good amount of time watching film with his coaches in the last seven days or so. He relayed some key points to his players, too.
The Bulldogs are deadly in transition. Their power play doesn't miss. And their pretty strong on the back end, too.
Without pause, though, Jackson surely mentioned one final piece of advice: Notre Dame is capable of doing the things required to win this game.
The key for the Irish is pretty simple. Bring the strong defensive commitment they showed against New Hampshire in the Northeast Regional final and the offensive versatility displayed in the third period of the tournament opener against Merrimack, and the Irish will play for a national championship Saturday night.
"I have great respect for Scott Sandelin and the job he's done at Duluth," Jackson said. "I know he has one of the best lines in the country, a good goaltender and great special teams. I'm looking forward to seeing them on film. It's really going to be all about us, and how we play."
The way Jackson wants his club to compete places reliance and trust above all else. At times this season, he saw the commitment and unconditional trust. The moments, however, were fleeting. Jackson spent all season waiting for the trademark victory and moment that proved his players finally understood.
Based on the scene on the ice following Notre Dame's 2-1 win over UNH in Manchester, Jackson's players figured it out just in time.
As the game ended and the players rushed the ice to celebrate their win. The Notre Dame band promptly began playing the school's fight song and alma mater — songs almost exclusively associated with the school's storied football program. Almost instantly, the Irish players joined arms and sang along, honoring their school and their program. In perfect unison, they belted out verse after verse. The celebration continued after the game in the Notre Dame locker room. For Jackson, the scene demonstrated that his players no longer worried about their youth and talent level.
"This is one of the closest teams I've ever coached, maybe the closest," Jackson said. "I think people might have even seen this on the ice after the game. It's the first time I can remember them all together and arm and arm for the alma mater when it was being played.
"That's just an indication of how much pride they have in representing Notre Dame," he continued. "The scene in the locker room afterward was pretty entertaining from my point. They celebrate together. They enjoy each other's company, and they were certainly excited for the opportunity to move on to college hockey's biggest stage."
On that stage, Thursday at 5 p.m. (ET), 20 Irish players will take the ice together. For the following three hours, they must remember that cohesion and their commitment to each other. Moving without the puck, creating options for their teammates and trusting each other unconditionally, the traits that brought them to the sport's biggest stage. One moment of apprehension or selfishness is all Duluth needs to turn a contested game into a win.
As strong as UNH's offense is in transition, the Connollys and Fontaine, along with the remaining UMD players, create chances off the rush unlike almost any other line in the country. Eliminating those opportunities for 60 minutes may prove difficult, but Jackson knows it's possible based on what he saw in Manchester.
"I think the things that helped us last weekend were more attention to detail as far as doing the little things away from the puck offensively and defensively," Jackson said. "I thought it was one of our better overall efforts from our defensemen and our forwards as well as Mike Johnson in goal. It was really well balanced. We've preached all season long that when you're dealing with a young group of kids, you have to emphasize the same things over and over and over. The positive thing for me is that [in Manchester] I saw, for the first time, our ability to actually do the things that are necessary throughout the entire game for 60 minutes and not drift off."
Jackson spent all season telling his players the heights possible when they did those things. Against Duluth, it won't be easy to repeat. Playing together, though, is something the Irish genuinely enjoy doing. And if they want to do it again on Saturday, they'll need to do just that.