Noie: Top-ranked Notre Dame hockey team just keeps rolling right along

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Campus remains closed for another week during winter break, but there remained a whole lot of streaking going on Sunday around Notre Dame.

Maybe not through snow and the cold around the Quad, but certainly inside Compton Family Ice Arena. There, top-ranked Notre Dame stretched the nation’s longest win streak to 15 games by completing a conference series sweep of Michigan, 2-1.

The 15 wins matches the most in program history. But the last time the Irish did that, in the mid-1980s, they were a club team. Club teams don't chase national championships. Might this one?

Like a baseball no-hitter, it’s a streak that remains taboo. Nobody in the Irish locker room or team meeting room or coaches' office on the bus or especially on the ice talks much of it. Ever. Just keep skating. Just keep getting better on the power play, which produced three scores over the weekend. Just keep tightening the screws on defense and in goal. Keep improving. Individually. Collectively.

“We’re still getting our game together,” said coach Jeff Jackson. “We’re far from a perfect hockey team.”

They sure have played the part while running away with the Big Ten in their first season. Notre Dame moves to 18-3-1 overall, 12-0-0-0 in the league, where it’s already a whopping 14 points better than second-place Ohio State.

Regular-season league championship banner, anyone? That’s not one the Irish covet. Not even close. They’re thinking big. Like early-April big.

“It’s been fun trying to keep it going at this point,” said sophomore goalie Cale Morris, who made 33 saves for his 17th win. “We’re just trying to stick to the process.”

That process is pretty plain. Just play. Pass the puck. Shoot and score. Defend. Goaltend. The Irish have often made it look easy for now 72 days and counting since their last loss. Sunday wasn’t. Notre Dame delivered two goals during an eight-minute stretch in the second period. Then it was hold on tight time in the final 60-plus seconds with the Michigan goal empty, an extra attacker on and shots sailing left and right and up and down at Morris, who kept turning them all away.

It was Notre Dame’s seventh one-goal win during the streak. It was another tough one, as evidence of all the streaks of black afterward on the white goalie pads of Morris. The more pressure the tighter the focus has been. From Morris. From the defensemen in front of him. From everyone.

“That’s one of the great things with the Big Ten is there’s a lot of these close games,” Morris said. “Pressure’s on all times being a goalie. I love the pressure.”

There once was a time when a victory over Michigan in hockey was cause for celebration. If fans could rush the ice, they would have. Back when Notre Dame played in the creaky Joyce Fieldhouse, where fencing tournaments often were held at the same time at the other end of the building, Michigan was the gold standard in the old Central Collegiate Hockey Association. It had a Hall of Fame coach in Red Berenson (always sipping his cup of coffee in the tunnel before games). It had a steady stream of guys who would go on to NHL careers. It had – still has – arguably the best college hockey venue around in Yost Ice Arena.

Long-time followers of the program with good memories can still see former Irish forward Aniket Dhadphale with the puck pasted on his stick, a Wolverine goalie sprawled on the ice and a wide, wide, wide open goal just begging for a goal. Remember that way back in 1998? When Irish hockey was a wasteland of lopsided letdowns? Fifteen in a row? Yeah, right. Maybe losses.

Had Dhadphale scored that one goal that one Saturday night in Ann Arbor, it would have given Notre Dame a stunning first-round conference playoff series sweep of Michigan. Dhadphale pushed the puck high, the Wolverines eventually tied the game and then the series with an overtime win and eliminated the Irish the next night.

Former Irish coach Dave Poulin was in tears after the overtime loss. He knew how close his program was to doing the impossible that night. He understood how much it needed to have that upset on its resume.

What might have been then is what is now. Michigan still owns a 74-57-5 advantage in a series that started in 1921, but Notre Dame has been the better team of late. The Irish have won six of the last seven including five in a row.

Notre Dame last lost on Oct. 26. The Irish football team still had very real visions of getting to Monday’s national championship game (didn't), and still employed defensive coordinator Mike Elko (isn't). The men’s basketball team still had Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell in the starting lineup. Now Colson’s lost for eight weeks following foot surgery and Farrell is down for who knows how long with a sprained left ankle. The women’s basketball team had just lost Mychal Johnson to a season-ending injury, but still had Lili Thompson and Mikayla Vaughn. Both have since also been lost for the year with injuries, leaving the second-ranked Irish with only seven available scholarship players.

With so much wackiness rolling around the school’s other winter sports programs, the hockey dudes just keep winning.

“We make it interesting every night,” Jackson said. “It’s not like we’re winning these games going away. We’re fighting through it.”

Now after only two games that followed a whopping 26 days off, the Irish get another 10 away before returning to action at home Jan. 19 against Wisconsin.

“It is a little different,” Morris said.

Notre Dame will take three days to head to Chicago. To work out. To practice in the cavernous United Center in preparation for the Jan. 21 game against Wisconsin. To take in a Blackhawks game. To meet with some Notre Dame graduates who also are chief executive officers of area corporations. To prepare some of the players – 16 are enrolled in the Mendoza College of Business — for life after hockey.

“Our guys will get a chance to get some professional development, and I’m not talking hockey,” Jackson said. “That’s the Notre Dame way.”

As is winning. A lot. At least, lately.

NOTRE DAME 2, MICHIGAN 1

At Compton Famile Ice Arena

Michigan 0 0 1 1

Notre Dame 0 2 0 2

FIRST PERIOD

No scoring. Penalties: Michigan 1-for-2:00; Notre Dame 1-for-2:00.

SECOND PERIOD

1. Notre Dame Oglevie 9 (Malmquist, Theisen), 6:10. 2. Notre Dame, Hellickson 2 (Morrison, Nardella), 13:51, (pp). Penalties: Michigan 2-for-4:00; Notre Dame 1-for-2:00.

THIRD PERIOD

3. Michigan Norris 5 (Hughes, Slaker), 8:44. Penalties: Michigan 0-for-0; Notre Dame 1-for-2:00.

Shots on goal: Michigan 8-15-11-34; Notre Dame 15-7-14-36. Goalies: Michigan Hayden Lavigne (15-5-14-34 saves); Notre Dame Cale Morris (8-15-10-33). Power Plays: Michigan 0-for-3; Notre Dame 1-for-3. Referees: C.J. Beaurline, Brett Sheva. Linesmen: Justin Cornell, Joseph Hutek. Attendance: 4,896.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Matt Hellickson (5) hits in a goal on Michigan goaltender Hayden Lavigne (30) during the Notre Dame-Michigan college hockey game Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, inside the Compton Family Ice Arena at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre DameÕs Cal Burke (11) gets checked into the glass by MichiganÕs Luke Martin (2) during the Notre Dame-Michigan college hockey game Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, inside the Compton Family Ice Arena at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN