SOUTH BEND — No one may ever know whether one team’s bad luck made it possible for Notre Dame’s hockey team to continue its streak of NCAA tournament appearances Sunday night.
Even coach Jeff Jackson, whose team will play long-time rival Boston College in the first round of the Northeast Regional at Albany, N.Y., this Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m., thought his Fighting Irish (14-13-2) might have lost whatever chance they had when unheralded St. Lawrence won 3-2 in overtime at Quinnipiac last Saturday to win ECAC Hockey’s automatic berth into the 16-team field.
But then word leaked out late Sunday afternoon that St. Lawrence (6-8-3) would have to turn down the bid because head coach Brent Brekke had tested positive for COVID-19 and suddenly the Irish were back in the clouded and crowded picture.
“We were fortunate to get in on St. Lawrence’s misfortune by the sounds of it,” Jackson said. “I knew we were on the cusp; I knew we were close, but I couldn’t predict anything because of the upsets in the (other) conference tournaments.”
That picture became brighter when Jackson learned the Irish would receive a bid and play Jerry York’s Eagles (17-5-1), the No. 2 overall seed behind North Dakota. Joining the Irish and Eagles at Albany’s Times Union Center will be St. Cloud State (17-10) of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and the Eagles’ Hockey East rival Boston University (10-4-1), who will play their first-round game at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The two winners play Sunday at 5:30 p.m. for the regional championship and a spot in the Frozen Four which will be played in Pittsburgh April 8 and 10.
“I knew we would be a lower seed and we were going to play a great team,” Jackson said. “Obviously in playing Boston College, a rival, makes it that much more of a big game. We know them well.”
Boston College has a 23-20-3 edge in the series with Notre Dame. The teams did not play this season because of COVID-19 and last season the Eagles swept a home-and-home series with Notre Dame in December 2019, winning 4-0 and 6-1. The game against the Eagles will feature the top two active coaches in victories in BC’s York (1,108) and Notre Dame’s Jackson (530).
It’s the fifth straight NCAA appearance for Jackson’s Irish, who went to back-to-back Frozen Fours in 2017 and 2018, losing to Minnesota Duluth in the championship game 2-1 at Saint Paul, Minn., in 2018. The Irish lost 4-0 to Massachusetts, the eventual runner-up to champion Duluth, in the 2019 Northeast Regional championship, and there was no NCAA Tournament last season when the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down last March.
It’s Notre Dame’s seventh NCAA appearance in the last 10 years and 11th under Jackson, who coached Lake Superior State to a pair of NCAA championships in the 1990s. Under Jackson, the Irish have been to four Frozen Fours.
Usually in past years when the Irish had assuredly earned a bid to the tournament, Jackson, his assistants and his team would gather in the team auditorium in the Compton Family Ice Arena and watch the NCAA Selection Show. But because the Irish were eliminated by Penn State in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament a week ago Sunday at the Lefty Smith Ice Rink, a continuation of the season seemed doubtful.
Nevertheless, after giving his team Monday and Tuesday off, Jackson had the Irish regather Wednesday and practice every day through Saturday, culminating with a game scrimmage to stay in competitive shape.
Even though it appeared his team was a longshot after its loss to the Nittany Lions, Jackson felt the Irish had a chance of receiving a bid because they had played 12 Big Ten Conference games against No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 7 Michigan, splitting four games with the Gophers and Wolverines while going 0-3-1 against the Badgers.
“As things started to shake down, I knew that would be a factor,” Jackson said of Notre Dame’s 4-7-1 mark against the Big Ten’s big three. He also felt his team’s late surge – they went 4-0-1 in their last five games before losing to Penn State – gave the Irish a chance to make the field over other bubble teams like Quinnipiac (17-7-4), the NCHC’s Omaha (14-10-1) and Denver (10-13-1), Atlantic Hockey’s Army (15-6-1) and Robert Morris (15-9) and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s Bowling Green (20-10-1).
Ultimately, Quinnipiac and Omaha made the 16-team field along with Notre Dame when St. Lawrence was forced to turn down its tournament bid.
“I think we might have been the last team in,” Jackson said. “First of all, I feel for Brent Brekke, he’s a good man. I was excited for him but not happy that St. Lawrence had won Saturday. We needed all the favorites to win (their tournaments) and that did not happen. We’ve all gone through this COVID stuff.”
Wisconsin, which finished in seventh place last season in the Big Ten, was the No. 1 seed in the tournament last week at Compton but lost 6-4 to Minnesota in Tuesday’s championship game. Minnesota received the No. 3 overall seed and will play in the West Regional at Loveland, Colo., while Wisconsin received the fourth No. 1 seed and will head up the East Regional foursome at Bridgeport, Conn.
The Big Ten’s Michigan (15-10-1) also received a tournament bid, the second seed in the Midwest Regional that includes No. 1 North Dakota (21-5-1), Atlantic Hockey tournament champion American International (15-3) and two-time NCAA defending champion Minnesota Duluth (14-10-2). The NCHC also had four teams receive bids (North Dakota, Duluth, St. Cloud and Omaha), while two other conferences had three each – Hockey East (BC, Boston U. and Massachusetts) and the WCHA (Minnesota State, Lake Superior State and Bemidji State).