Over the last nine weekends, No. 12/12 Notre Dame’s hockey team has done a pretty good job focusing on what’s next instead of what’s down the road.
College hockey’s ultimate prize — an NCAA championship on Saturday, April 13 in Buffalo’s KeyBank Center — is four victories away as Jeff Jackson’s youthful Fighting Irish (22-13-3) ride a four-game postseason winning streak into the NCAA Northeast Regional at SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H.
But the first step is to take care of business against formidable No. 7/6 Clarkson (26-10-2), which beat Cornell 4-3 in overtime to win the ECAC Hockey tournament title and is the hottest college hockey team at 7-0-2. Faceoff is set for 6:30 following the 3 p.m. game between Harvard and regional top-seed Massachusetts.
“We just have to focus on the next game — that’s all we can do,” said Jeff Jackson, whose Irish earned him the 500th Division I victory of a 20-year caree.
“They are a big, strong team,” Jackson said of Clarkson, which features seven defensemen all 6-foot-1 or taller, including 6-foot-7 Connor McCarthy and 6-foot-4 Greg Moro and Jordan Schneider. “They really clog up their own end defensively and they block a lot of shots. I think the biggest thing is going to be trying to score goals.”
Offense has been a struggle for Notre Dame, averaging 2.87 goals a game (27th among the 60 Division I teams), and it won’t be any easier against stingy junior goaltender Jake Kielly (1.89 goals-against, .929 save percentage, five shutouts), who has started every game for Clarkson coach Casey Jones.
After being swept 5-1 and 2-1 by Minnesota Jan. 11-12 at home, Jackson talked to his team, shook up his lines and the Irish shook up the opposition, taking five of six points from both the Badgers and visiting Michigan State. Notre Dame is 10-5-2 since being swept and is 7-3 in its last 10 games, including 5-3 in one-goal games.
“It’s been do or die every playoff game we’ve had,” junior defenseman and captain Andrew Peeke said Thursday. “We’re hungry and more determined.”
Because of an injury to senior defenseman Bobby Nardella before the playoffs, Jackson paired freshman Spencer Stastney with Peeke and liked their pairing so much that when Nardella returned he was paired with freshman Nate Clurman. Sophomore Matt Hellickson and steady junior Tory Dello make up the third defensive duo.
Meanwhile, freshman Michael Graham and Burke each have a team-leading 12 goals, while Dylan Malmquist, Colin Theisen and Cam Morrison — who got the game-winner against Penn State — have 10 each.
Just as they did last season in reaching the Frozen Four championship game against Minnesota Duluth before falling 2-1, the Irish are riding junior All-America goaltender Cale Morris.
“Cale has been great all year,” Peeke said of the Big Ten Tourney MVP who began with 1-0 and 2-0 shutouts of Michigan State and allowed just three goals against the Gophers and Nittany Lions for a 0.75 goals-against average and a .977 save percentage. “Defensively, we’ve locked it down.”
Against three of college hockey’s most potent lines — Michigan State’s Patrick Khodorenko-Taro Hirose-Mitchell Lewandowski, Minnesota’s Rem Pitlick-Brent Gates-Tyler Sheehy and Penn State’s Evan Barratt-Alex Limoges-Liam Folkes — that have totaled 139 goals and 344 points, the Irish allowed no goals and zero points. Much of that defensive work was done by an all-freshman line of center Jake Pivonka, left wing Graham Slaggert and right wing Alex Steeves, who grew up with sophomore brother Matt seven miles from the SNHU Arena in Bedford.
The freshmen now will contend with the Golden Knights’ top line of German junior center Nico Sturm (14-31-45), Canadian sophomore left wing Jack Jacome (6-8-24) and Latvian junior right wing Haralds Egle (18-21-39). They lead an offense that is averaging 3.16 goals a game (13th nationally). Chris Klack had the game-winner in overtime against Cornell with an assist from junior left wing Devin Brosseau, who had a pair of power-play goals in the first period and now numbers eight on a power-play unit that is ranked 16th nationally.