SOUTH BEND — If Notre Dame’s hockey team hopes to keep intact its streak of four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, it likely will have to win three games in three days against the stiffest competition the Big Ten Conference can provide Sunday through Tuesday in the Compton Family Ice Arena.
Coach Jeff Jackson’s 14-12-2 Fighting Irish will need to be at the top of their game during the postseason, single-elimination Big Ten Tournament just as goaltender Dylan St. Cyr has been at the top of his over the last two months of the regular season.
That Notre Dame has a chance to win its third straight Big Ten Tournament title is a credit to the 5-foot-9, 170-pound senior finance major from Northville, Michigan, who enters the tournament trending upward with an 11-8-1 record, a 2.30 goals-against average and a .925 saves percentage.
“Dylan has given us a chance to win every night,” understated Jackson, a former collegiate goalie himself at Michigan State in the 1970s. During the 14 games St. Cyr has started in Notre Dame’s last 15 games, the Irish are 8-5-1 thanks to his 2.00 average and .939 saves percentage.
Now Jackson and the Irish hope that St. Cyr can backstop them to a third straight Big Ten championship performance at the site of the first two – the Lefty Smith Rink. This is Notre Dame’s fourth season as a hockey member of the Big Ten Conference, and the Irish, with St. Cyr backing up All-American Cale Morris, won titles in their first two seasons by beating Ohio State 3-2 in overtime in 2018 and Penn State 3-2 in 2019.
Last season’s tournament was canceled just days after Minnesota ousted Notre Dame 2-1 in their opening best-of-three series as the nation was coming to grips with the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Cyr had taken a redshirt season while freshman Ryan Bischel backed up Morris, who unexpectedly returned for his senior season.
With the disease’s issues still ongoing this fall, the Big Ten shortened its regular season to 28 games — 24 against the league’s other six teams and four non-conference home games with independent Arizona State. Only No. 1 seed Wisconsin (19-8-1) and Notre Dame managed to play the full complement of games.
The league also condensed what in the past had been a three-weekend postseason to this year’s single-elimination format over three straight days. The Irish and their goalie are looking forward to the haul.
“It’s been a while since I’ve played three consecutive days, probably back to my youth (hockey) days,” St. Cyr said during preparations for No. 4 seed Notre Dame’s opening game Sunday at high noon against No. 5 seed Penn State. The winner then moves into Monday’s first semifinal game at 4:30 p.m. against Wisconsin.
If the Irish are lucky enough to survive those two games, they could face either No. 2 seed Minnesota (20-6-0) or No. 3 seed Michigan (14-9-1) for the championship Tuesday night at 8:30. The eventual champion will receive the league’s automatic berth among the 16 teams in the NCAA tournament field which will be announced Sunday, March 21.
“We have to take it one step at a time,” St. Cyr said. “We just played two good games against Penn State (5-2 and 7-1 triumphs) last weekend. Those were their first two games in about 30 days (because of COVID-19). We know they’re going to be better this Sunday. That’s our main focus. If we get too far ahead of ourselves, that could work against us.”
That St. Cyr has found his game is not surprising to Jackson. “Dylan came back with a fire in his eyes,” Jackson said back in November. “He trained extremely hard coming into the year and (was) in the best shape of his life.”
Much of that tenacity St. Cyr inherited from his hockey-playing parents — father Gerry, who played minor-league hockey as a forward, and his well-known mother Manon Rhéaume, a hockey goalie who won Olympic silver for Team Canada in 1998 after becoming the first woman to start in the NHL during an exhibition for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992.
“The game has changed so much since Mom played so she’s never really given me much on the technical side,” Dylan said. “That’s been left to the goalie coaches I’ve had. Mom and Dad both helped me on the mental side for the most part.”
St. Cyr ended up playing with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, where he got Notre Dame’s attention while winning gold for the Under-18 team. He had to wait for Cale Morris, who earned All-America honors and won the Mike Richter Award as goalie of the year as a sophomore in 2018 when Notre Dame lost in the Frozen Four championship game to Minnesota Duluth, 2-1, at Saint Paul, Minn.
“I think we always knew Dylan had that ability,” Jackson said. “This season, I thought he and Ryan went head-to-head fairly well, but I didn’t think they were playing at the level we needed them to. Sometimes getting into your groove means playing regularly.”
St. Cyr got that chance following a 2-1 victory Jan. 16 at Minnesota when Bischel suffered an injury in practice the following week, St. Cyr started both games against Michigan and at Penn State the following weeks. His 33 saves in Notre Dame’s 3-2 overtime victory at Penn State Jan. 29 began a three-game win streak, and except for Bischel’s start in a 3-0 home loss to Minnesota Feb. 13, St. Cyr has been between the pipes ever since.
“It’s unfortunate that Ryan ended up getting hurt,” St. Cyr said. “but I’ve been able to get comfortable playing more games. For me that’s probably been the turning point, being able to string together some good games and get comfortable, being able to focus mentally on my game and what I have to do. That’s been the turning point for me.”
Perhaps his biggest confidence boost came during a shootout with the Badgers Feb. 20 following a 5-5 tie. After making 39 saves in regulation and overtime, St. Cyr stopped first the nation’s leading scorer, Cole Caufield, and then Dylan Holloway (No. 4) and Ty Pelton-Byce (No. 8) in the shootout that Notre Dame won on Max Ellis’ successful shot.
The following weekend St. Cyr made a combined 56 saves in a pair of 2-0 victories at Michigan State and then last weekend stopped 75 of 78 shots against the Nittany Lions as Notre Dame finished the regular season on a 4-0-1 run.
It’s a run Notre Dame and Dylan St. Cyr hope never ends.