Notre Dame looking to play 'desperate hockey' in Frozen Four

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Jeff Jackson has been here before, but this time around, he's doing things slightly differently.

The last time Notre Dame made the Frozen Four, back in 2011, the Fighting Irish coach felt like the team was just happy to get there. They bowed out with a 4-3 semifinal loss to Minnesota-Duluth.

This time, when No. 4 seed Notre Dame (23-11-5) faces off late Thursday night with No. 1 Denver (31-7-4) in the late game (9:30) at the United Center in Chicago, there will be a little more urgency.

Practices the past week have been shorter but more intense, emphasizing the speed needed to compete with a team like Denver, which Jackson says is like a deeper version of familiar Hockey East rival Boston University.

The focus has been clear: the Irish aren't just happy and satisfied to be there this time. Anything less than a title will be disappointing.

"If you want to win a national championship, we have to play desperate hockey," Jackson said at Monday's media session. "Getting there is one thing, but winning it is something different. It's a lot more challenging, and I've been fortunate to be part of seven Frozen Fours, having that mindset that we need to take that next step, and it's never easy. Everything kind of has to go your way to win it. It boils down to a lot of factors, some you have control over and some you don't."

Things like protecting the puck. Making smart decisions over flashy moves. Having the patience, poise, and will to wait for the right time to make game-winning plays.

Jackson saw that will to win two weekends ago in Manchester, NH when the Irish came from behind twice, including an overtime thriller against UMass Lowell that propelled them to their third Frozen Four in the last 10 years.

This time around, the celebration was brief before it was back to business for a team that's not happy to just get there, and doing the little things that lead to wins.

"The biggest thing is the selflessness of our forwards has gotten better," Jackson said. "Anders Bjork wants to beat everybody one-on-one. And when you see Anders Bjork last week chipping pucks in, that's a sign that they want to win."

"We're not just happy to be there," said Irish goaltender and captain Cal Petersen. "We're going to make a statement, and I think we have a legitimate chance to make some noise and hopefully come back with a championship."

Standing in their way first is the top-ranked team in the country, led by national coach of the year Jim Montgomery and frontline stars Troy Terry (22 goals, 19 assists for 41 points) and freshman Finnish sensation Henrik Borgstrom (21 goals, 21 assists for 42 points).

But they may not even be the best part of their team. According to Jackson, that would be the defense, which leads the nation with 1.83 goals allowed per game, and is anchored by senior Hobey Baker Award finalist Will Butcher.

"I really think it's about their defensive corp that makes the biggest difference for them," Jackson said. "They're very mobile, they're all jumping into the play. They're a great transition team and they're very offensive-minded. That's their game and the best part of their defensive game, the puck possession. They do a great job in the cycle and in the O-zone."

Two other No. 1 seeds, Harvard (28-5-2) and Minnesota-Duluth (27-6-7) meet in the early game. The winners will play for the national championship on Saturday at 8 p.m.

Will they stay or go?

When asked about for his impressions of Butcher, Jackson gave a quick synopsis of his attributes, then added, "God bless Denver for keeping him for four years. A player of that caliber that plays his senior year, to me, I give that kid a lot of credit. He's going to get the chance to play for a national championship as a senior, and that's the reason why kids stay."

It turns out that choice may not have been entirely Butcher's to make, though. According to a story by the Denver Post on Saturday, after Denver lost in the Frozen Four last season, Butcher was essentially told by the Colorado Avalanche that the team had no plans to sign the junior from the hometown college program.

According to the Post, that edict came from now-departed coach Patrick Roy, and it's not known if Butcher will now sign with the Avalanche. Butcher could go the route of last year's Hobey Baker winner, Jimmy Vesey, who chose to forego signing with the team that drafted him (Nashville) and instead waited a few weeks to become a free agent.

NHL teams have until the middle of August following a drafted player's senior season to sign them before the player can become a free agent, and many teams don't bother waiting for that senior season to risk losing players they definitely want, instead choosing to sign them earlier.

Therefore, Jackson's comments could be taken as an appeal to a couple of seniors-to-be on his own team. Bjork and Petersen have had breakout junior campaigns, and both are being pushed hard to sign with the NHL teams that drafted them.

The Buffalo News recently reported on comments made by Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray on his radio show in March regarding Petersen, a fifth-round pick by Buffalo in 2013.

"We've made our opinion pretty clear: What more does he have to accomplish in college?" Murray said. "We've explained the opportunity here, and we think there's an opportunity for him to start out as the starter in the American Hockey League next year and continue the great progression he's had."

As for Bjork, a fifth round pick by Boston in 2014, numerous reports said he was the best player at the Bruins' prospect camp last summer and the team is very high on his potential, so much so that several Boston media outlets are reporting that he is expected to sign with the Bruins as soon as Notre Dame's postseason run is over.

Keeping both Bjork and Petersen around for one more year in South Bend, regardless of the outcome at the United Center this weekend, is shaping up to be a tough task.

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said the selflessness of forward Anders Bjork (10) has been one of the keys to the Irish run to the Frozen Four. (AP Photo/MARY SCHWALM)

WHAT: Frozen Four, National Semifinals

WHO: Notre Dame (23-11-5) vs. Denver (31-7-4)

WHERE: United Center, Chicago

WHEN: Thursday, 9:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

NOTE: Harvard (28-5-2) meets Minnesota-Duluth (27-6-7) in the first game of the night at 6 p.m. ... Championship is Saturday at 8 on ESPN.