Blue-liner Jordan Gross has upped his game for No. 1 Notre Dame

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Jordan Gross believes there’s a very simple explanation why the No. 1 Notre Dame hockey team is riding the nation’s longest winning streak of 15 games heading into this weekend’s series with long-time rival Wisconsin.

“Coach (Jeff Jackson) has done a good job emphasizing to us that we can’t be satisfied,” the 5-10, 186-pound senior defenseman said.

After all, this is an Irish team that got a taste of the Frozen Four in Chicago’s United Center last April.

The current ranking and streak includes a 12-0 start in Notre Dame’s inaugural season as a member of the Big Ten Conference.

“We’ve had a good start but it won’t mean a thing if we don’t keep getting better every day,” said the 22-year-old Gross, who currently stands third on the team in scoring with 18 points on five goals and 13 assists, is fifth in plus-minus at +11 and fourth in shots blocked with 28.

Gross, a standout at Maple Grove (Minn.) High School and for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League, has not missed a game since arriving at Notre Dame. When he steps onto the Lefty Smith Rink ice Friday night at 7:30 p.m. against the 18th-ranked Badgers, he will be playing in his 142nd straight game.

“I’ve been really fortunate with good health,” said Gross, who passed off credit for that to the team’s weight training and conditioning coach, Tony Rolinski.

“T-Rol does a really good job with us, building our muscles and with the injury-prevention stuff. I think a lot of it is due to him.”

But a lot of it has to do with Gross’ burning desire to get better.

“Jordan has played a big role for us pretty much since he got here,” said Jackson, who has seen a lot of growth from one of his alternate captains. “What makes me the proudest of him is that he dropped off a little offensively and made some sacrifices to get better defensively. He’s always had the instincts to be a good offensive defenseman. But it’s going to be the defensive game that will allow him to be successful and to play at the next level. He has made a big effort to get better defensively.”

Gross, who earlier this year became the 53rd player in the program’s history to reach 100 points and now has 109 (31 goals, 78 assists), is currently third all-time in scoring by a defenseman with Jeff Brownschidle (122) and John Schmidt (123) ahead of him.

While he admits he’s a fan of current NHL defensemen Erik Carlsson of the Ottawa Senators and Jared Spurgeon of the Minnesota Wild — two blue-liners with enough speed to lead the rush and to get back to defend — Gross relishes the improvements he has made defensively and what they have meant to his team.

“I needed to get a better understanding of the d-zone,” he said. “I needed to be more consistent down there and be hard to play against.”

The whole Irish defense in front of sophomore Cale Morris has bought into that philosophy. It’s why the Irish have allowed just 20 goals in the 15 games and Morris has a .962 save percentage.

“We’ve elevated our game and made life a little easier on Cale, and he does a really good job of communicating,” Gross said. “We’ve built a trust with him.”

Just as Morris and the rest of the Irish have built a trust in Gross, who is still getting off 3.77 shots on goal a game, which leads all NCAA defensemen.

“Jordan is very assertive with the puck,” junior defenseman Bobby Nardella said. “He wants the puck all the time — he’s always calling for it. He’s got a really good shot — it’s kind of like the puck has eyes as we like to say. And he’s turned into one of our best defensive defensemen, and I think I’ve done a better job with my defensive game. I’m staying more positionally sound. I’m not taking as many risks which I learned from Jordan last year.”

Gross’ actions on the ice speak volumes.

“(Jordan’s) a quiet guy who goes about his business,” Jackson said. “The guys respect him and they like him. He puts in a good effort all the time. So when he does speak, the guys do listen.”

As former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s used to say: Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Notre Dame’s Jordan Gross (3) moves the puck down the ice in front of Michigan’s Cutler Martin (4) 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

WHO: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (18-3-1 overall, 12-0-0-0 Big Ten) vs. Wisconsin Badgers (11-11-3 overall, 5-7-2-0 Big Ten).

HERE: Friday at South Bend on Lefty Smith Rink in Compton Family Ice Arena (5,022 capacity) at 7:35 p.m. (NBC Sports Chicago Plus).

THERE: Sunday at Chicago in United Center (23,500 capacity) at 3:05 p.m. (NBC Sports Network).

RADIO: WZOC-FM (94.3) both games.

COLLEGE HOCKEY

POLLS: Notre Dame is No. 1 in both USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine (coaches) and USCHO.com (media) polls; Wisconsin is No. 18 in USCHO.com (media) and unranked in USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine (coaches) polls.

SERIES NOTES: Notre Dame earned its first-ever sweep in Madison, Wis., with 3-2 (Friday, Dec. 8) and 6-2 (Saturday, Dec. 9) victories … Overall, the Badgers are 39-20-7 in 66 games, 15-9-5 in 29 games at Notre Dame and 4-1 in neutral site games.

STREAKING: Notre Dame’s 15-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the country, is its longest ever as a member of a Division I conference and its longest ever in the 13-year tenure of head coach Jeff Jackson.

QUOTING JEFF JACKSON: “The biggest challenge we’re going to face is retribution every weekend because everyone we’ve played we’ve beaten. There is going to be a higher level of motivation by the opponent.”

IRISH ICE CHIPS: Sophomore goalie Cale Morris is 17-1 and leads the nation in winning percentage at .944. … Morris also leads the nation in save percentage (.956) and is second in goals-against average (1.47) and shutouts (4) behind Clarkson’s Jake Kielly (1.33, 6). … Andrew Oglevie is second in the nation with four game-winning goals and is 18th in power-play goals with five. … Senior captain/center Jake Evans paces the Irish in scoring with 28 points (7 goals, 21 assists).

BADGER BITS: Wisconsin is led by Chicago-area native and Badgers alumnus Tony Granato, who will coach the U.S. Olympic team at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, Feb. 14-25. … The Badgers snapped a 0-4-1 winless string with their 5-2 victory over the Spartans. … Senior goalie Kyle Hayton, who has started the last three games, is 8-8-3 as a starter with a 2.76 goals-against average and .896 save percentage. … Senior Ryan Wagner leads Wisconsin with 21 points.