Notre Dame beats Ohio State, locks up Big Ten

John Fineran Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND – After more than a century of a love/hate relationship between itself and the athletic interests of Notre Dame, the Big Ten Conference now finds its regular-season hockey championship trophy in possession of the Fighting Irish.

Coach Jeff Jackson’s top-ranked Irish, a first-year member of the conference and the preseason pick to finish second, claimed the trophy Friday night with a 2-1 victory over Ohio State before a sellout crowd of 5,291 at the Lefty Smith Rink of the Compton Family Ice Arena.

“For me, the reward is watching the kids celebrate,” said 13-year head coach Jeff Jackson, a former backup goaltender at Michigan State. “That was a playoff game – the intensity that Ohio State played with we matched very well. I was proud of their effort tonight. It’s a tremendous feather in their cap.”

At 16-2-1-1 and 50 points, Notre Dame increased its Big Ten lead over second-place Ohio State to an insurmountable 16 points with five games (and a maximum 15 points available) remaining for both clubs. The two teams meet again tonight at 7:05 p.m.

The Irish, 22-5-2 overall, donned special hats with “B1G Ice Hockey Regular Season Champ18ns” emblazoned on the front and posed for team pictures before captain Jake Evans, who assisted on Jordan Gross’ eventual game-winning goal at 9:36 of the second period, begrudgingly picked up the trophy to show the fans who stayed around for the moment.

“We didn’t want (to touch the trophy) but the fans were cheering for it and we thought we might as well do it for them,” Evans said with a chuckle.

In hockey, typically, teams do not touch trophies until after the ultimate round. But with the Notre Dame student body asking to see the Big Ten trophy, the Irish showed they weren’t superstitious.

Under Jackson, who coached a pair of NCAA champions at Lake Superior State, Notre Dame has won six hockey conference titles – both in the regular season and postseason in the now defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association – but none of the previous five were ever clinched at home.

That this latest title, after four seasons in Hockey East, comes in the Big Ten is somewhat amusing considering the football Irish were once spurned by the conference in the early part of the 20th century and the Irish later turned down an invitation to join the conference in 1999.

When the Irish grew weary of the plane travels back East, however, the Big Ten hockey coaches and league officials were more welcoming.

Once again, sophomore goaltender Cale Morris had an outstanding evening. After making a career-high 55 saves in last Saturday’s 2-2 overtime tie (and eventual 1-0 shootout victory) and 103 total saves for the weekend at Penn State, Morris made 31 against the Buckeyes (18-7-4, 11-7-1-0 Big Ten).

Morris’ Ohio State counterpart, Sean Romeo, made 27 stops as the Buckeyes outshot the Irish 32-29. It was the 21st time in 29 games this season the opposition has outshot Notre Dame.

But it was senior defenseman Gross, playing in his 148th straight game since arriving on campus four years ago, who tipped home a shot by Cam Morrison, who received the puck from Evans, at 9:36 for the game-winner. It was Gross’ seventh of the season.

Notre Dame had taken a 1-0 lead at 12:49 of the first period when Andrew Oglevie converted a cross-ice feed from Dylan Malmquist, with Cal Burke also assisting, for his 12th goal of the season. The Buckeyes tied it at 6:52 of the second period on a power-play goal by Kevin Miller.

“We’ve got five games left and we can’t fall asleep now,” Jackson said. “We’ve done something special, but we don’t want to go into the playoffs not playing well. There are parts of our game that still need to get better. We still have to work more to become a better possession team. I thought tonight we were better at possessing the puck.”

Following Saturday’s game with the Buckeyes, the Irish have a home-and-home series with Michigan and then a home series with Michigan State to conclude the regular season.

By winning the title, Notre Dame received a first-round bye in the conference tournament, which features two first-round, best-of-three series among the other six teams. Notre Dame would play host to the lowest-ranked team advancing from the first round in a one-game elimination semifinal game on March 10. If the Irish win that game, they host the championship game on March 17.

“If we look back (at the end of the season) and we’ve only got the regular-season championship, we’re not going to be very happy,” Evans said. “We want to build toward March and be the best team we can be.”

Notre Dame’s Mike O'Leary (19) tries to shoot past Ohio State’s Wyatt Ege (7) during Friday night's hockey game at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA